Afterthoughts: The Military State

Ever wondered how a military family feels about Hawaii?

Honolulu looked bleak to me, at first. When I arrived in 2008, I wasn’t welcomed with views of the beach; I saw the underside of Nimitz Highway and grayish-brown industrial sprawl.

My first address was the airport hotel. I’d run along that unlovely stretch of highway, working off the stress of house hunting. It was hard to find a place: People didn’t like our dog and it was impossible to find addresses tucked, as they were, on unpronounceable streets. I ran by the homeless camped under the highway, looking so settled there. This was not the Hawaii I expected.

I’ve got a house now, but I still don’t quite fit in. I talk fast, I end conversations hastily and am unable to say “Kalanianaole”—undeniably marking me as a foreigner, a haole’s haole. What brought you to the island? people always ask.

Military, I say. I’m the wife of a helicopter pilot, and a veteran myself. I did a one-year tour in Iraq as part of the rebuilding effort; I was a machine gunner on about 200 combat missions. I am very military, even if no one calls me Sergeant anymore.

A familiar shadow crosses the face. Oh! I have a neighbor who’s in the military.

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

I imagine this is how minorities feel when they’re confronted with “some of my best friends are [insert race here].” It says: You are not one of us, but we must accept your presence here.

So it’s lonely here as an outsider—it’s tough to fit in and then there’s the separation from family, whom I can’t see without great expense and tens of hours on planes with a squirming child. I can’t call my mother at will, so far ahead is she in time. I lack the ability to really establish myself in a job before I must move. There is no permanence, not even a spouse who’s always around.

When my husband deployed, it was isolation on top of isolation. On an island full of aunties and uncles, no one reached out. So I retreated.

That was my own failure. There is value in toughing out a difficult relationship. Just because it’s hard to feel part of Hawaii doesn’t mean I should’ve stopped trying. But I was tired.

It wore me down, the constant praying for my husband to come home alive. This is not an overstatement; they’d been in Iraq two months before one of our friends—someone who’d shared our dinner table—died. Died. As in dead, never coming home and what do we do with his shoes in our garage-sale pile? My prayers weren’t flowery or contrived, just God, please bring him home to me, repeated over and over whenever my thoughts weren’t on something else.

Being here without my husband was harder than being in combat myself. Here, I was burdened with the responsibility to keep it together, so he wouldn’t worry. When soldiers worry about home, minds wander and mistakes are made. Mistakes lead to people dying in combat. (That, and bombs.)

Now, with my husband safely home, I’m trying again to belong. A new house on the North Shore and a neighbor who did not begin our relationship by correcting my clunky Hawaiian gives me hope. She takes me to the Hawaiian-language service at church and I learn the words I’ve needed all along: Mahalo Ke Akua (for thankfulness, and God).

I hope someday I’ll stop feeling like I have to apologize for being haole, for being in the military, for being here at all. I may be a haole’s haole, but that’s my contribution to the Hawaii diversity pie. And that’s all I’ve got.                     

Kathryn Drury Wagner is on maternity leave. While she’s away, we’ll be running guest columns from our editors.