A year and a half into her new role, Helen Jones (pictured) shares what she has learned so far as the spouse of a URC army chaplain
The success of The Military Wives Choir over the last year has given the general public an insight into the life of a modern day spouse married to a member of the British Armed forces. I confess I did not watch the TV series at the time it aired, but I have bought the Christmas CD!
The programme coincided with my own situation in finding myself eligible to join the choir: In 2011, after a year of rigorous tests and interviews, my husband, Kevin, a URC minister, became an army chaplain and I gained the label of “the padre’s wife”.
For the past 18 months I have lived on a military housing estate and experienced at first hand the fairly hidden life many military spouses and families have been living for years. I feel as though I have learned a lot in a relatively short space of time – not least because I have lived through the experience of my husband being deployed to Afghanistan as chaplain to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards.
Just as the daily life of a British Armed Forces wife had previously been alien to my understanding, so really had the war in Afghanistan. But all of a sudden in April, selfishly I admit, I started to take a keen interest in a war that has now been going on for the past 10 years – because Kevin had arrived there and would remain there for six months.
I do not live on a base with the families of my husband’s battalion, but I do live amongst neighbours who are all in the forces and this collective experience seems to help people to relate quicker to each other. Removal vans, packing and unpacking are constant presences and a sign of the transitory nature of the lifestyle, in which many military families expect to move every year and a half or two years. Yet in my street I know all my neighbours by name. During my husband’s deployment, I was invited to meals, parties, barbecues, baby showers and all the time I was asked how I was. The genuine concern as to my welfare from people I have known such a short time was a humbling experience.
I met others wives whose husbands were deployed too (being an infantry battalion they were all husbands), often at events run by the welfare department of my husband’s battalion, and through these meetings I realised just how resilient and courageous these wives are and have been over the years.
The reserves they draw upon to keep family life as normal as possible and to keep themselves sane and functioning whilst a husband is in a war zone is quite inspirational. They will do all they can to provide stability on the home front while supporting their guy “out in the sands” too. They learn to keep troubles to themselves so as not to cause undue worry for partners who are too far away to be able to help.
But worrying for military wives is a constant part of life, as I discovered. The 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, with whom Kevin was deployed, led the Police Mentoring and Advisory Group working alongside the Afghan police. As they were in bases all over the Province, it meant Kevin travelled most of the time in order to visit the Guardsmen – which for me made the worrying greater. Sadly they did suffer deaths and injuries during the tour.
One thing a six-month separation does is concentrate the mind as to what to do with the extra time that suddenly opens up – time you would have spent with your husband. Loneliness is a big factor, especially when the busyness of the day gives out to a quiet spells with feet up on the settee. All of us were extremely grateful for the month-long Olympics, not to mention the jubilee celebrations earlier in the year. Some of us decided to provide ourselves with challenges (as if having your husband in Afghanistan is not a big enough challenge!). I signed up to a BUPA London 10k run in aid of ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity, having no running experience at all and only one month to get myself fit. It was an amazing day and thanks to so many supporters, especially from my various church families across the country, I raised £1024.50 and got to race with Mo Farah!
For some wives, this was their husband’s second six-month tour to Afghanistan since 2009, meaning that out of three years one whole year has been spent apart. Marriages must come under great strain; as military wives we are all given briefings about what to expect when having a husband deployed and, more importantly, how to handle the homecoming and all the readjustment that entails.
Of course, we all handle stress in various ways, often employing coping mechanisms. For the Welsh Guard military wife with a loved one deployed, it might mean attending a weekly coffee morning at the barracks, or an event organised by the Welfare Department at which families can meet up, share and generally just be with each other.
Personally, I drew some support from these things, and also from the Royal Army Chaplaincy Department who looked after me during my husband’s deployment. But my main support came from family and friends and from being a Christian. I really appreciated the comfort and power of prayer that I felt surrounded myself and Kevin and which allowed me to sleep peacefully at night. I was humbled by the number of people from various churches I have been involved with over the years who kept in touch with me and, crucially, said they were praying for us on a regular basis. I work for a Baptist church where I don’t even worship, and the love and support from these people was at times quite overwhelming.
Serving soldiers receive a medal when they return from active duty and in some respects their wives deserve one too. I know plenty of women in this environment whose home circumstances and selfless care to others warrant recognition, and some do get recognised, but for most the daily struggle goes unnoticed.
Without God, family and friends, work colleagues and the prayerful support I have received from too many churches to mention, I would not have got through the past 18 months as I have done.
Separation from a loved one is a lonely experience; if I have learned one thing from Kevin’s time in Afghanistan, it is to appreciate what you have. I hope it means I will be more sensitive to those who find themselves separated from someone they love, be it through work, illness or death, and therefore that God will use me to offer prayer or support or that random act of kindness – which can often mean so much to the recipient and cost so little from the giver.
It was wonderful to be able to welcome Kevin home in October, and soon afterwards, to enjoy some leave time together. Kevin remains the Padre to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards and is now involved with supporting the Battalion in their day-to-day existence at the barracks as they all get used to being back in the UK. In the run-up to Christmas we will be busy with homecoming parades and Christmas services. Kevin will expect to receive a posting to a new unit within the next 12 months from the Royal Army Chaplains Department.
Helen Jones is a church administrator for a city centre Baptist church and is currently living in a military housing estate in Surrey. Her husband Kevin is a URC army chaplain who has recently returned from a tour of Afghanistan with 1st Battalion Welsh Guards
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.