GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The six women sitting on the “Veteran Experience” panel last week at Richard Stockton College never enlisted in the military.
But as spouses or girlfriends of soldiers, active and retired, their family life has been controlled by a higher authority they say spouses either learn to live with or, too often, abandon.
“You’d see marriages break up during deployments,” said Michelle Walmsley, of Galloway Township, an adjunct professor at Stockton. Her husband served aboard a nuclear submarine, where emails were reviewed by senior officers who might not deliver messages they felt could affect the spouse’s ability to focus on his job.
The spouses panel, followed by another of local veterans and military personnel, are part of a course at Stockton taught by professor Ron Caro, a former Marine, to explore the lives of families in the military, how veterans assimilate back into society, and how society responds to them. First offered last spring, it has attracted students from a variety of disciplines.
“At first I thought it would primarily appeal to veterans,” Caro said. “But I’m glad it wasn’t limited. I want to bring understanding and sensitivity to the issues, and it’s been great to have students from different backgrounds. I want society to know more about what’s going on with veterans.”
The course includes guest speakers, documentaries and books. Caro brought in a social worker to talk about post-traumatic stress and welcomes members of the military who want to share their experiences.
Several students, such as Tarin Penrose, 37, of Elmer, Salem County, are in Stockton’s social work program and want to work with veterans. Chris Territo, 23, of Tinton Falls, Monmouth County, has thought about enlisting and wanted a better understanding of the experience. Taryn Lewis, 21, of Newark, said it has given her a better understanding of her grandfather, a Navy veteran who died last summer.
“He lived with us, but we didn’t talk much about it,” Lewis said.
On Tuesday, students and guests got an inside view of military family life at all different stages. Annelise Musolf, of Toms River, a junior at Stockton whose father was a Marine, said it has been difficult at times to have a relationship with her boyfriend, who is stationed in California and is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in November. When a student asked whether couples sometimes feel pressured to get married, she quickly said, “Yes!”
“I feel like a military spouse even if I’m not one,” she said. “I see what I am doing now as taking care of me and focusing on building our future together. It’s a struggle, but I also realize more than ever that he is the one I want to be with.”
Walmsley talked about being a “sub chaser,” traveling to where her husband was stationed. Wives said email, better phone access and video-conferencing have kept families more in touch than during previous conflicts, when “snail mail” could take weeks to deliver.
“We use Facebook a lot,” said Kathi Morrison, whose husband is in Afghanistan. “If I don’t see a posting, I worry.”
But they also talked about not wanting to bother deployed husbands with any struggles at home.
“I only talked about happy stuff,” said Donna Hagen, of Galloway Township, whose husband retired after 24 years of military service and whose son enlisted in the Navy in 2006. “He needed to concentrate on what he needed to do.”
Hagen said her career was being a military spouse, and she appreciates that there is more support for families now than in past decades, when families got no recognition at all. She talked about war’s effect on her children and having to pull the plug on the television during conflicts because they were not sleeping.
“I’d turn it back on at 2 a.m. so I could catch up,” she said, citing one incident in which the barracks her husband was staying in got hit and she didn’t know for 72 hours whether he was OK.
Caro said a big issue today is how veterans can assimilate back into society while struggling with post-traumatic stress issues from battle zones, and an economy with fewer jobs. Hagen said she lobbied for counseling for spouses so they could better understand and support their husbands when they return because life doesn’t just go back to the way it was before. The wives said their husbands face issues such as trouble sleeping and having loud noises or airplanes set off anxiety attacks.
During their panel, the veterans answered questions about their service, injuries and, at Caro’s insistence, the fun they had, which led to stories about tattoos, fermenting alcohol from military rations and how everyone got the same haircut because Jibey Asthappan, now an assistant professor of criminal justice at Stockton, was the only person in his group deployed after the Sept. 11 attacks who thought to pack hair clippers.
“I only knew how to cut my own hair so everyone looked like me,” he said.
Caro said putting some focus on fun was intentional.
“At one point, I realized all the questions students were coming up with were negative,” Caro said. “I wanted to give (panelists) a chance to talk about the positive aspects of what they do as well.”
Marco Polo Smigliani, of Egg Harbor Township, talked about being injured in Vietnam and spat upon at home when he returned, a sentiment shared by Bob Ford, of Galloway Township, in explaining why it is so important to support veterans.
But the younger veterans said they are not always appreciated, and some still come home to wives who have emptied bank accounts and left, employers who do not want to hire them and a poor job market. Matt Generally joined the Army National Guard in 2001 while still at Lacey Township High School and spent 2008-09 in Baghdad. He got his degree from Stockton last year but so far has been unable to find a job in education.
“It’s not politically correct to criticize veterans today, so it’s more hidden,” said Dolph Hoch, of the Lower Bank section of Washington Township, Burlington County, a former Marine who also served with the Army Special Forces in Afghanistan and now teaches at Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City. “But there are people who resent if we get special treatment.”
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