Monday, November 21, 2005

Hearing From Those Left Behind – A Review of “A Year of Absence” by Jessica Redmond

Jessica Redmond’s riveting new book opens a panoramic and long-overdue window into the lives of the spouses and children left behind when soldiers are deployed to Iraq. Jessica has worked as a journalist, teacher, Peace Corps volunteer and community organizer. In 2003, Jessica’s husband of less than a year, Jon Redmond, was sent to Iraq as part of the Army’s First Armored Division. One of the ways that Jessica chose to cope with the anticipated year-long absence of her husband was to channel her energies into chronicling the lives of other woman and other families who had been left behind when the First Armored Division was sent to the Persian Gulf. Eventually, Jessica chose to focus on telling the stories of six of these women. She writes authoritatively and with great empathy for the emotional rollercoaster ride that she both observed and experienced. In the rich tradition of Margaret Mead, Jessica took advantage of her unique role as a participant/observer in painting a composite picture of six women - who are given pseudonyms in this book. The resulting collage serves to show the reader a microcosm of the U.S. military in time of war as seen through the eyes of those who stayed behind. The title of the book is an apt description of the scope of the story: “A Year of Absence – Six Women’s Stories of Courage, Hope and Love.”

During the course of the deployment, the women left behind at the U.S. Army base in Baumholder, Germany, struggled with a full range of challenges – emotional, medical, relational, familial, parental, financial, logistical and existential. Jessica walks us gingerly though the minefields of marriages teetering on the rocks, the frustrations of infrequent communication with Iraq, family medical emergencies, and the confusion of befuddled toddlers who could not understand why they no longer had a Dad. The book clearly depicts the monumental challenge these women faced in needing to become – on a temporary basis - fully independent, without permanently altering the family organizational chart in a way that would leave the husband on the outside looking in upon his return from the battlefield. As the lives of these women and their families come into sharp focus through Redmond’s writing, it becomes clear that the men’s deployment to the literal battlefield in Iraq has spawned parallel battlefields back home in the lives of the women they were forced to leave behind. Some of those battles were waged between spouses, while others were fought silently within the confines of the women's hearts and souls.

* * * * *

“Finally, it seemed, the long, terrifying wait was almost over. Almost over, but not quite. Soon after the meeting, still feeling hope about her husband’s return, Beth started her day as she always did by checking the Yahoo! News Web site, praying that no soldiers had been killed in Iraq overnight. This time, like so many times before, her prayers had failed her. The headline read: ‘Five Soldiers Killed in Iraq.’ Please God, she whispered, don’t let it be First Armored Division. Holding her breath, she clicked on the link. The soldiers were from a different division; Doug was still alive, or was to the best of her knowledge. She let out a sigh of relief, thankful that it was no one she knew, but her relief was immediately followed by guilt. The fallen soldiers might not have been her husband or any of her neighbor’s husbands, but they were someone’s husband, father, son, or brother. How terrible to feel relief at their deaths! Yet as much as she detested it, the relief was undeniable, and she felt it every time she read that an attack had taken place not in Baghdad but in Mosel or Fallujah, anywhere outside First Armored Division’s control.” (Pages 141,142.)

* * * * *

One of the questions that played as a continuous tape loop in the minds of each of the six women was: “How will my husband be different when he finally returns home?” They had all heard reports of extreme behavior on the part of returning soldiers – all the way from shutting down emotionally as one extreme to becoming abusive and even homicidal at the other end of the spectrum. Would they even recognize the men who would be returning from the life-altering experience of combat?

* * * * *

“We’ve gone soft, Jena thought, as she considered the sacrifices women had made throughout the ages during times of war. Comforted by the thought of all those generations of women who had gotten through far worse than what she was experiencing now, she felt a renewed sense of determination to endure the remaining weeks of deployment with courage and grace.

That determination was buoyed the following week when Jena visited a fourth grade class at the local elementary school that had “adopted” Adam at the start of the deployment. The children sent Adam letters and drawings and an occasional care package; that much Jena knew. What she didn’t know, prior to her visit, was that Adam had somehow found the time to write to each child in the class individually. Jena was shocked to find photos and letters from her husband posted on every wall of the classroom. Seeing those letters filled Jena with pride. It was just like Adam to do something like that so humbly, not even telling her about it. More importantly, knowing that he had come in from potentially deadly patrols, removed his weapon, and sat down to write letters to school children reassured her that he had not been overly affected by what he had seen and done in Iraq. The deployment might have changed him in some ways, but fundamentally, he was still the same kind, caring person he had always been . . . ‘The soft part of him hasn’t been interrupted,’ she concluded with a smile.”
(Pages 154,155.)

* * * * *

The deployment was scheduled to last a year. Just weeks before the men were to rotate back to Germany, their time in Iraq was extended for an additional 120 days. It was a crushing blow to the men and their families, who had geared the rhythm of the lives to a reunion that now had to be postponed. The men eventually came home – but one of them returned in a coffin. Jessica covers that heartbreaking part of the story with dignity and grace.

This gripping book has been crafted as a multi-purpose tool. It should be required reading for soldiers before they deploy, as well as for spouses who could benefit enormously from the experiences of those who have already trod the same path they will soon be walking. Chaplains and social workers in the military will find this a very welcome addition to their arsenal of resources. I plan to purchase multiple copies to give as gifts this Christmas to the wives of several friends of mine who are currently deployed, as well as a few who face the immanent deployment of a loved one. I recommend this book to any citizen who wants to develop a deeper understanding of the price that our soldiers and their families pay each day as a result of their commitment to serve our nation – at war and in peacetime.

“A Year of Absence” is published by Elva Resa Publishing, and can be ordered on or through this Web site:

The book is also available at Borders Bookstore and Barnes & Noble retail outlets and selected local book stores.

The holidays are coming. Jessica Redmond has already delivered a powerful gift of empathy and understanding. Now, it is our turn to help her to deliver that gift to the widest possible audience.


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