Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Monday, December 10, 2012

An Officer's Wife

About a year and a half ago I wrote a blog entitled “Are These My Brains?” that was triggered by some influential men being exposed for having extra-marital affairs.  I suppose I could have resurrected that to memorialize the extreme fall from grace exhibited by General David Petraeus, had I even wished to comment on the (pardon the pun) affair.  But what actually brought the event to my attention was how deeply my wife Mary, seemed to feel about the incident.

General Patraeus and Paula Brodwell
Not so much the infidelity itself (I used to say that early on in our 52-year marriage she once commented that “If I found out you were unfaithful, I don’t know if I would kill you or myself” and that indecision was a constant reminder of our wedding vows.), but of how much his wife had done in the 34 years of his service: something like 24 major moves (we had 14 or 15), the constant social requirements, particularly when he became a senior officer, and even the extra pressure of raising a family so as not to jeopardize his rising career.  Especially, boys.

When I went on active duty and we got married (a remarkably short time between those two events) we were among several young dental couples at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.  The men (and we were all men) were indoctrinated in what it meant to be an officer, things that had missed our attention during the two week indoctrination at Newport, Rhode Island.  Our teacher was our Commanding Officer, a genial but, in retrospect, extremely knowledgeable and expecting Navy Captain.  The women (never girls) were encouraged to purchase and commit to memory the Naval Officer Handbook for Wives.  I strongly suspect that book went out of print many years ago.

In it there was mention of when to wear hat and gloves; what was respectable attire for all manner of social functions; when and what was expected for “Calls, made and received”, what to have printed on your cards for those occasions, and numerous intrusions on your personal life, excepting perhaps what to name your children.

The informal side of the Officer’s Wife’s Life was left to the CO’s wife and the Officers’ Wives Club, which had a pecking order entirely based on seniority.

In time Mary would take her own place at the helm as the CO’s wife, and although times caused many items covered by the Handbook to change, little changed in the sociability requirements of the wives.  One was expected to entertain all new officers and their wives and to provide comfort and solace to any and all single officers.  Most holiday dinners included at least one of these, certainly lonely, men.

Instruction on commissary shopping, where to park at the Exchange, how to settle children in school, and babysitter availability were routinely doled out with a precision that masked how much effort went into researching the facts.  Remember this was before Google.  More subjective, but no less common was advice on financial matters, what to buy, how to furnish where you are currently living, and what constitutes necessities.  I remember coming home from the clinic one day of that first tour, telling Mary that she couldn’t buy a sewing machine, no matter that everyone else seemed to be doing so, because we just couldn’t afford it. She later confessed that she had no intention of buying a machine she couldn’t use.


The Petraeus moves seemed of special consequence to Mary (who, reluctantly shares family spelling of her maiden name with Jill Kelley).  I had no idea that she still has recurring dreams of the movers exiting the front door and she discovering a closet, or perhaps a whole room, she forgot to have them pack. She feels that General Petreaus’ wife is owed big time for her anguish.  Of lesser concern, probably because she only has her own experience to go by, is what Mrs. Petraeus went through, coping with the effect of the moves on children: the problems inherent with new schools, leaving friends, adolescent changes in an unstable environment, and even the growing accumulation of “stuff” that needed to be packed and moved.

There are few compensatory perks for the Officers wife; certainly none to speak of until your husband reaches senior level, which might get you kitchen and household help and a bigger cave to live in, and much that comes with trade-offs. I remember when we were privileged to stay in VIP quarters in Baguio while stationed in the Philippine Islands.  The bed was huge and had three pillows.  Mary questioned why, three, and I conjectured that one was probably for the Aide, since command necessitates a surrender of privacy.

And I guess that surrender was what eventually cost the General his position, his reputation and perhaps his honor, for as an honor graduate of West Point he would have been expected to adhere to the Codes: of Military Justice and Military Ethics.

Several people have asked me why she would possibly want to stay married.  As one whose parents are both buried at Arlington (mom on top of pop) and one who hopes for the same for Mary and me, maybe she just wants a place to go when she dies. 

Maybe she can get the bottom bunk.
I heard an interesting homily recently that argued we all have a “sell-by” date.  Next post I’ll share how that got me thinking.  Please join me

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