Telling stories, making a difference
Published: February 28, 2011
Kristin Henderson has seen the war from the front and the home front. As a reporter, she covered troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Washington Post Magazine. As a military chaplain’s wife, she’s been the one at home during several deployments. Her 2006 book “While They’re at War,” tells the stories of military wives enduring deployments early in the war.
“Compared to other reporters, I’ve only embedded twice. I’m really a dilettante,” she demurred. Compared to most spouses, however, perhaps her perspective on our decade of conflict is wider.
Relating stories that come from both fronts is Kristin’s passion as a writer and a military wife, so she listens.
“I’ve never heard a boring story from anybody … There is always something interesting there if you are just willing to sit and listen.
“People just want to be heard, to know they aren’t forgotten and that what they do is recognized and respected,” Kristin said.
Conditions were primitive and reporters were scarce in 2008 when she embedded with a Marine unit in Helmand province. “Everyone was in Iraq,” she said, so she went to Afghanistan.
“I really was there to tell the story of that particular platoon. The Marines were talking about how glad they were that (the United States Agency for International Development) was there because they couldn’t do it alone.”
It was a chance for Kristin to hear directly from the troops what they were discovering about how the war could be won – not only with bullets but also with humanitarian aid.
“I showed up at this outpost where there had been no women,” she said. “They were living in a school that had a tarp for a roof, with classrooms as dorm rooms. I had a dorm room all to myself … I had a cot, and they had put down some plywood on the dirt. Quite the swank accommodations, considering where we were.”
One night she hiked up a dark mountain with a group of Marines delivering supplies to men at a remote observation post.
“For about three days at a time, five guys would be holed up on this mountain,” she said. “It was freezing cold up there.”
“As I was leaving, one guy grabbed me by the elbow and said, ‘Ma’am, I just want to thank you for coming all the way out here. Not many people would do that just to see what we do.’”
His gratitude stunned her.
“I think at that time they felt so alone and forgotten by the rest of the country. There was no media there. No one was telling their story.” (Click here for Kristin's coverage for the Washington Post Magazine.)
Troops on dark mountaintops and spouses struggling at home want to know their sacrifice has value, that their story has listeners.
“Interest in military families comes in little flurries, like interest in the war,” Kristin said. “It’s all off the front page now. Most people want to be supportive … but they don’t know what to do but give you a pat on the back.
“While sympathy and admiration on the civilian side has grown, the experience of being at war has outpaced that,” she said. “Most of our service members are changed when they come home. You and I are changed, families are changed and it gets compounded with every deployment.”
In almost ten years of war, Kristin has seen advances in the way the military cares for its own.
“I think there have been huge improvements in military culture and the systems they have in place,” she said, particularly for handling combat stress.
“Even as the system changes, the reality is that one individual who is unenlightened can bring it all to a screeching halt. For the subordinates under their command, life is no different than it was before.
“Yes, there are vast improvements, but we still have a ways to go,” Kristin said. “As long as there are some leaders who still see the need to process stress experiences as a weakness, that stigma is going to remain in individual cases.”
People inside and outside the military are questioning whether the price paid by military families during these years of war has been worthwhile, she said.
“I think the argument can be made that much as been accomplished, in spite of not being given the resources to fight the right kind of battle,” she said.
To answer the question “Has it been worthwhile?” Kristin said she has to go to the a personal level.
“For me, what makes life meaningful is leaving the world a slightly better place than you found it. Following all the larger news, it’s easy to feel helpless to change anything because the problems are so large, much larger than any one person even the President of the United States,” she said.
“When I look at the larger issue of ‘Is the military being used well?’ it can be very discouraging, but when I look at the individual level, and I look at what my husband does, and I know he’s helping people on a day to day basis and making a difference. That makes it worthwhile to me."
And so she keeps telling the stories -- our stories -- and that makes a difference too.