Interview with Dawn VanGorkum
–by Kristen Tsetsi
Dawn VanGorkum, raised by a father who was a 1SG in the Army and married to an Army soldier, has all the experience she needs to be a knowledgeable and helpful resource for people who “like” the facebook pages she moderates, Military Families Matter—“It’s a page of support, to help with questions, and share in information about programs…It’s all about being supportive and positive and is for service members and their families,” Dawn says—and Married to the Military, a similar page designed for both male and female spouses of service members.
Dawn was just sixteen when she met her husband. She and a friend had been driving around and made a quick stop at a gas station where, as it happened, someone she knew she could never be attracted to had also stopped for gas with his friend.
“My husband tried to flirt with me,” Dawn says. Referring to her younger self as a “cocky sixteen-year-old,” Dawn says she responded to his flirting with “Ew!” She also called him a “dirty hippie” and told him to take a shower, shave, get a haircut, and put on some clean clothes, and then she might touch him with a ten-foot pole.
“Obviously,” she says, “we didn’t hit it off.”
She didn’t see him again for about seven years, when—at 22 years old—she discovered the clean-cut, clean-shaven man in clean clothes she was dating, the man she’d met the day of his graduation from basic training, was the dirty hippie from the gas station.
“He had done all that I had requested. We didn’t know each other, nor had we put two and two together until about six months into us dating,” Dawn says.
Although Darrell was already in the military when Dawn decided to get involved with him, she disagrees with those who might say, during the difficult times, “You knew what you were getting into when you decided to be with someone in the military.”
“No one can understand, or even begin to imagine, what military men/women go through and see during war/deployments…. and no one can understand or even begin to imagine what it’s like for the families left behind—unless you’re someone who’s been through it or is going through it,” Dawn says. “Even then, every experience is different from the next… from person to person, and from deployment to deployment. It’s never the same and no one ever comes out the way they went in on either side of the experience.”
LIFT: How have deployments affected (either positively or negatively) your relationship with your husband?
DAWN: I’m overwhelmed by the changes, sometimes, and trying to get to know this man I’ve been married to for almost ten years, most of which we’ve spent doing deployments, thus being apart for twelve or more months at a time. Throw in some field time and TDY on top of that and it’s even more time apart, but at least without the stress deployments bring.
These bumps in the road are sometimes fleeting, and for the most part never last but a moment; however, the effects they have can be imprinted for a lifetime. Add the stresses of a normal daily life for anyone—those who aren’t military—and then top it off with a military life with all those factors, and you can almost feel like you’re constantly having to return to square one every time he comes home from a deployment. Being a military family means being in a constant state of adjustment.
LIFT: You say deployments are different from person to person, that each experience is different. What’s been your personal experience with deployments?
DAWN: Deployments suck for lots of reasons. Mostly because deployments for those of us left behind are waiting games. Waiting for their return, their emails, their letters, their phone calls, their instant messages, their skyping…just waiting for them. I cried a lot at night and had trouble sometimes sleeping, especially when the kids were worried about their Dad and trying to make sure our infant would know who Daddy was when he got home. I worried every day about him, wondering how he was doing, if he was eating healthy, if he was feeling alright.
LIFT: What kinds of things did you find yourself thinking about the most during deployments as it pertained to him? That is, what were your fears?
DAWN: I feared the same things most military families fear. I feared, he’d get hurt, he’d be a POW, he’d be tortured or killed…. mostly all those fears are just sub-fears of the greatest fear of all: never seeing my husband again. That is the only fear you have when they deploy, that you may never see them again. That fear will rip you apart inside and can make you shut down if you let it overtake you.
Somehow, you push that fear to the darkest place in your mind and soldier on for your children and smile so that your husband, when he has the opportunity to call, won’t see or hear the fear in you. He needs to know you are strong and handling things at home, so that he can focus and handle things where he is. Sometimes though, at night, when it’s quiet and the kids are asleep and you are still awake, you wander to that place in your mind where your fear is hidden and then you just have to cry it out and pray to God Almighty to protect your husband and to help give you all the strength you need to make it through the deployment.
LIFT: What have the adjustment periods been like for your kids when your husband leaves, and then when he comes home?
DAWN: The kids deal with it differently, as all three are at different developmental states. We have a teenager who is going to act tough about it, but once in a while he’ll let me know that he wishes his dad was home. Then we have our grade-school child who is very sensitive, but he just shuts off when his dad leaves for a few days… then he takes to being very clingy to me, a habit he’s taught his younger brother, who is just a toddler.
LIFT: What annoys you the most during deployments?
DAWN: I hate people who think this is the time to prey on military families for any reason. I hate the media making it out to be something it’s not… like saying the war is over and the troops are all home when my husband was still over there and getting shot at. It may “officially” no longer be called a war, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous over there anymore.
LIFT: What impression do you have of how military families are perceived by those with no connection to the military?
DAWN: Everyone thanks the soldiers, and that is AWESOME, but what about the spouses and kids who are left behind to pick up the extra life duties their soldier can’t be home to do? The fact that we spouses almost never get a break… And some of us have to give up our dreams in order to be able to deal with family obligations with frequent deployments, because not all employers understand that everything falls on you when your Soldier is deployed.
LIFT: Lifetime’s “Army Wives” is probably the first show attempting to illustrate the military family experience. What do you think of it?
DAWN: It’s a cute show, but actually it’s nothing like my life as an Army Wife…. and most other military spouses I know agree that it’s not like their life, but they like the show.
LIFT: And, speaking of your life as an Army wife, what do you like most about being in a military family?
DAWN: It’s all I know. I was born and raised in the Army, and now I’m a wife of a soldier… I feel honored to be the lady holding down the fort on the homefront for my husband so that when he is home, he has a wonderful familiar setting with loving open arms waiting for him 24/7.