When the men are gone ...
On Fort Hood, the setting for Siobhan Fallon’s tales of military life, the street names are almost too symbolic to be real. However, anyone who’s been stationed at the Army post in central Texas will recognize names like Tank Destroyer Boulevard and Warrior Way. What military family hasn’t lived on a street named after a general, weapon, battle or warship?
“Those are the things you forget about when you’re a military spouse,” Siobhan said. “The rest of the world is not like that.”
Siobhan wasn’t looking for a military life when she met her soldier husband, but she embraced that life a decade or so ago. Now she shares it with readers both military and civilian. Her book “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” though fictional, rings true. The book has received praise from an impressive list of sources including the New York Times, Publishers Weekly and Oprah.
Siobhan’s dad runs a pub outside the gates of the U.S. Military Academy, so while growing up she saw her share of cadets. And she was not interested.
“My sister and I never ever, ever dated cadets,” she said. “Ever.”
When Siobhan met the first – and last – soldier she would ever date, she was tending bar for her dad and finishing her master’s degree. She knew she wanted to be a writer, but didn’t yet know she wanted to be an Army wife.
Her husband-to-be had already graduated from West Point, “so technically he was not a cadet,” she said, laughing.
“Before we got married, he said to me ‘I’m only going to marry a woman who will be an FRG leader,’” so Siobhan knew from the start the Army would be more to her than her husband’s career.
“You Know When the Men Are Gone,” is a collection of gritty short stories about spouses at home, soldiers deployed and difficult homecomings. All are fictional, but grew from the seeds of Siobhan’s experiences during her husband’s multiple deployments, one in which she was a Family Readiness Group leader at Fort Hood.
“I was amazed by what these spouses were going through, these younger spouses. Here I was married for five years and having been through two deployments, and I’m still figuring it out, but I was struck by how much harder it was for them,” she said. She realized no one was telling their stories, so she wanted to write a book to convey those experiences.
The country, she said, “had a limited understanding of what was going on in Iraq and not very much understanding at all about what was happening on the home front. Maybe that’s why civilians have responded to (the book) because … their own experience of the war is very far away. Every military spouse has an understanding that our spouses can have to go somewhere very dangerous very quickly. I think we keep abreast of what is happening in a different way.”
Siobhan knew early in her marriage that her connection with the military was different than her family relationships.
“Nobody loves me more than my family or is more supportive, but it was a good lesson for me to find out how important my Family Readiness Group was,” she said. “We need to have a community … a unified front while the soldiers are all gone.”
After Fort Hood, Siobhan’s husband was sent to a school in California, where they lived in a civilian setting. The contrast was jarring, she remembers.
“I suddenly felt like I had so much more in common with total strangers at a military base. When I would go to Fort Ord, to the commissary … I could talk to anybody. It was really sort of disconcerting.” It brought home to her the greater disconnect felt by service members returning from deployment.
It also brought a new perspective to her book, then in the rewrite stage.
“I realized I need to step out and read (what I was writing) from a civilian point of view, because they don’t know what the heck I’m writing about … This is not something they talk about every day the way we do.”
There was the time Siobhan spoke to a college class, invited by a professor who was a veteran.
She recalled a student who raised her hand and asked, “What are you talking about a war still going on? I thought everyone came out of Iraq. What are you talking about, 'Afghanistan'?”
Siobhan found she needed to recount the events of September 11, 2001.
“Granted she was a kid then, but how is that not part of every American’s experience right now?”
Siobhan’s own experience as a military spouse is shifting. Her husband changed careers from infantry to foreign affairs officer. Their recent one-year assignment to Jordan provided the backdrop for a book she is working on now. The story has some military characters, but is not in a purely military setting and has a lighter tone than her first book.
“I’m having a lot of fun playing with point of view,” she said. “Everyone is telling one story, but from their side of it. They all see something different unfolding, and their understanding of it is completely different until the end.”
She’s also written a short story for an anthology coming out in February called “Fire and Forget,” for which she’s the only contributor who is not an active duty military member.
Siobhan tells the stories of military life for civilians and for her fellow spouses. Although her own FRG experiences, both as member and leader were mostly positive, she said the stories in “You Know When the Men Are Gone” are darker for a reason.
“I look back and see a million things I could have done better (as an FRG leader.) It’s the girls that slipped through the cracks who are sort of the characters in my book, who I couldn’t help, who didn’t get the information they needed or the counseling.”
For her husband too, she created characters who could have been the soldiers he couldn’t help as much as he would have liked.
Though none of Siobhan’s characters are based on actual people or events, most military readers will recognize them and might wish they didn’t sound so plausible. Not every story of military life is easy to tell, or to hear.