This past Valentine’s Day, Terri Barnes wrote her US Air Force husband, Mark, a love letter: “Why do I love thee? Let me count the moving trucks.” The chapters of their love story have been “punctuated by moving trucks and cardboard boxes, trips to the airport and powers of attorney, long distance phone calls and temporary housing… less about roses and more about well-worn uniforms, less about gourmet meals in exclusive restaurants and more about understocked commissaries in remote locations.”
Terri is a third-generation military wife and her love letter was a public one, published in her weekly Stars and Stripes column, Spouse Calls. Her transparent, personal, and emotionally universal messages are what have made Spouse Calls the newspaper’s longest-running military life column. For the past eight years, Terri has been a touchstone as the voice of everyday military family life.
“When I wrote my first column,” says Terri, “my husband had been deployed twice in Operation Enduring Freedom, once for Operation Iraqi Freedom and—I didn’t know it yet—was about to leave again for another OIF deployment. The ops tempo was pretty high. Our family was stationed overseas, at a location with an up-close perspective on the wars. We were at Ramstein, the transport hub for troops headed downrange, and only a few miles from Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center, so we saw the flow of injured service members coming in and out.”
At the height of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it was a time when military families, especially spouses, needed a place they could connect for information, but more importantly with each other.
“It’s comforting to read something that lets you know you’re not alone,” says Terri. “We’re definitely connected by story, and that’s why shared experience is so valuable. It’s encouraging when you read about someone else who’s endured or overcome a situation that perhaps you are facing as well.”
In print around the world and online, Spouse Calls began as a question and answer format and evolved into feature coverage of military life, including interviews with military spouses, commentary on news and policies affecting military life, and a look at the big and small of everyday life inside the hearts and homes of military families, including her own. Terri wrote about topics as broad as comforting children during deployment, living through typhoons and earthquakes, baking cookies for neighbors, tipping at the commissary, opening a box of her father’s photos from Vietnam, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some of the earliest and most faithful followers of Spouse Calls were spouses of veterans suffering from combat stress, from current conflicts as well as Vietnam and World War II.
“So many men and women reached out to find information and understanding,” says Terri. “They were desperate for reassurance. They asked questions, vented frustrations, and encouraged each other. Spouse Calls became a friendly place to connect.”
For two years, Stars and Stripes kept an ongoing forum for readers to reach out to each other on the topic through threaded comments. Some conversations formed the basis of Spouse Calls columns, allowing those voices to be heard by a larger audience.
“Sometimes it was hard to hear about these painful experiences,” says Terri, “but important to know the very real cost of war—to the troops who fight it and to the families who love them. At the same time, it was heartening to see the determination of these military families to survive, in spite of these invisible wounds, and to lift up one another in the process.”
Not all columns were as serious or enormous as PTSD. In fact, Terri soon became known for striking an emotional chord writing about the everyday moments of being a wife, daughter, and mother.
“People think of military life in terms of the big things, like frequent moves and deployments. But we live one day at a time, one small piece of life at a time,” she says. “These things connect us too. I like to look at the significance of those small things, like the Lego blocks and odd screws left behind after the movers pack up our house, about the inventory stickers we collect on our furniture each time we move. What do those little things reveal about the life we live? When I reflect on those things and write about them, I get more response from those kinds of columns than any others.”
Her readers have witnessed Terri’s military life as much as they’ve seen themselves in her stories. While written from the perspective of military life, much of Terri’s writing appeals to nonmilitary families as well, such as the column she wrote about packing the last lunch for her son before he graduated from high school. “One night…my oldest son said, ‘Hey, mom, this is the last time you’ll have to pack three lunches.’ He said it like he was relieving me of a burden instead of breaking my heart.”
The relevance of her writing to both military and civilian readers, led to a collection of Terri’s columns in her first book, Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life, published last spring.
Having the collection in book form has allowed Terri to connect with a much broader readership, from journalism students at Baylor University learning to craft their skills and positively impact their communities, to a homeless Vietnam veteran who shared his story with her at a local library event.
Military spouse Cindy Pyo used the book this year in the Army Basic Skills Education Program (BSEP) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, teaching English paragraph comprehension to soldiers to help raise their General Technical /GT scores. Using excerpts from Terri’s book, Cindy wrote short comprehension and vocabulary exercises to go with individual articles. She found the short essay length ideal for increasing reading comprehension skills, but more importantly, ideal for initiating important conversations.
“I teach mostly enlisted soldiers. I feel the material is highly relevant to their lives and will keep their interest, as well as inspire them,” says Cindy. “I found quite a bit of response to discussion on deployments and PTSD issues. It gave us a forum to let them bring up some difficult times and some continuing struggles. It also gave me a platform to discuss mental and spiritual self-care and resources they can go to on post and in the units to get help when they are struggling. A few soldiers came up for individual private continuation of the topic after class. I also feel a valuable part of using these excerpts is that the average rank and age of these soldiers in BSEP is PFC and mid-twenties. Many have deployed, but many have not. I want to prepare them in advance so they aren’t so shocked when war becomes a reality and not a fantasy to them. These articles were a valuable tool to open topics in an educational context that might be hard to bring up otherwise in this setting.”
Terri is both humbled and excited by the power of her book to stir conversation and increase understanding of military life. “Spouse Calls has always been about connection and community,” she says. “Even though we aren’t all living in the same hometown, reading the same hometown newspaper or the same book, we all have something in common. In that way, Spouse Calls allows each of us to connect with each other and our community.”
Terri says the challenge for military families ten years ago was to support each other and get through the wars. “Now there’s an added challenge to connect and tell our stories to the rest of our nation and world, particularly as many military families transition out of the military,” she says.
“Although the wars are officially over, I think we all know the situation is volatile. Our nation still needs a military, so military life goes on. Now more than ever, it becomes important for our stories to be told outside our community so that the nation we serve has a more well-rounded view of us, our challenges, and our strengths. I hope my book will open a window for civilian readers, revealing the everyday challenges of military life that don’t make the news and to show all that we have in common.”
Terri believes those who read her book will have a greater appreciation for military life because writing the essays have opened her own eyes. She says, “Writing Spouse Calls has given me a broader perspective of military life. I’ve been in a military family all my life and I thought I knew a lot about this life when I started writing, but I learn something new from every column I write and from every source I interview. It has made me aware of the diversity in the military community, of background, experience, and ability. I hope that my perspective and my experiences add to the narrative of American military life, that they illuminate some things about military life that are universal.”
In a few months, Terri’s husband will retire from active duty military life. Her youngest son will graduate from high school. “We’ll be learning a new way of life,” she says. “We’ll find out what it’s like to put down deeper roots, and we look forward to that. I’ve always written about the life I’m living, so I’m sure my writing in the future will be about our next adventure.”
More about Terri’s book Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life: SpouseCalls.com
Terri also contributed an essay in Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life and edited the compilation of military life stories from more than forty military family writers: Stories Around the Table.com
Photos courtesy of Terri Barnes.
Feature photo: Terri (right) enjoys coffee with her long-time friends Nancy and Linny, both military spouses who are mentioned in her book in the “Military Moms” essay. Friendship and family are central topics in Terri’s writing. She especially loves connecting with other military spouses and hearing their stories.
UPDATE: Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life by Terri Barnes won Gold/First Place in the Midwest Book Awards for Best Current Events/Political Science Book of the Year and was a finalist for Best Memoir. The book was also named a finalist in Foreword Review‘s IndieFab Book of the Year Awards for Best Essays.