“The war’s over. How do you feel?” I asked my husband, John, on August 31, the day after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan. He is an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, and I’m a military spouse. During our time in the military community, there’s always been war. “Good, I guess,” he replied.
The end of the war happened so quickly that service members and their families are still processing it. Around 800,000 Americans deployed to Afghanistan in the 20 years we fought there. The conflict has been called the long war, the forgotten war. Now, with the U.S. withdrawal and the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the rest of America has remembered it, but those of us in the military community have been dealing with it every day.
For eight years I’ve been working on a project about military families called “To Be At War.” Everyone has an opinion about how the military engages in war, but I want to make people think about what it means to go to war, what it means to be in a state of war, and who is at war. What does the end of this war mean for military families?
Our current military force represents the smallest proportion of the population in U.S. history. In World War II, 14 percent of Americans served, in Vietnam 9.7 percent. Now it’s less than 1 percent. More than half of these service members have families. The burden of war falls not just on the 1.3 million active-duty military personnel, but on their 1.6 million family members.
There are a lot of legacy families, too—80 percent of current service members come from a family where at least one other person has served. This insular community is becoming more self-contained, widening the gulf between civilians and the military.
I met John through mutual friends in 2011. I didn’t know much about the military. He was just coming off a combat deployment in Afghanistan. We hit it off. That summer I was working at an arts organization in Carriacou, Grenada, in the Caribbean. When John had was on leave for two weeks, he called me and said, “Hey, can I come hang out?” He ended up coordinating sports and activities for the local children.
When we got married, I moved from Los Angeles to Fort Irwin in California, which is the National Training Center for U.S. Army units before they deploy. Moving from a vibrant arts community to a super militarized environment was a shock.
I would stare out the window of his apartment and wonder, “Where am I?” Outside, groups of soldiers did early morning physical training and military vehicles rumbled by. I started taking pictures through the window from behind the curtains. I wasn’t sure if that was allowed, or if I was being surveilled. I Googled “military spouse” and “military families,” and found a lot of patriotic imagery and some stories on post-traumatic stress. I looked at the pictures and thought, ‘This isn’t what it feels like for me.’
I photographed military equipment in the apartment, my new domestic space. I put on John’s night vision goggles and took a self-portrait through them. Soon these objects of war became everyday parts of my life. I started walking outside and taking pictures. I began to realize that there was a whole war going on that civilian society wasn’t really engaged with. I started talking to new friends I’d meet about their experiences. I realized these military families are living this war, too; it’s not just those fighting it.
John doesn’t talk about his experiences much with me. I don't know if he doesn't want to relive it or doesn't want me to experience them, too. At one point early on, I found out that he was his unit’s unofficial photographer in Afghanistan. He took thousands of pictures. They’re mundane, funny, and without any agenda. When we looked through his photographs, he teared up at one of a ceremony featuring boots and a rifle. I didn’t know what they symbolized but then I understood: They had belonged to a member of his unit killed in combat. I was learning his story without him having to talk about it.
The military does offer some classes to prepare spouses for military life. There’s even a guide called the “blue book,” but it’s more about how to throw a luncheon than how to handle secondary trauma. Military families shoulder so many burdens—from the ever-looming threat of a loved one being killed or injured to substance abuse and mental health crises. It can be incredibly hard.
My friend Kerry Manneck’s husband Rei returned from war with a traumatic brain injury. “There is still part of him left in Afghanistan,” she said. “I know beneath it all, he loves me and our two daughters. But this is not the Rei that I fell in love with and married.”
When I first met John, he had nightmares. He’d shout things like “release the helicopters” and “we have to find an escape route.” He is startled by loud sounds, like the ones made by fireworks on the Fourth of July. I started thinking about how trauma is inherited by family members. Is it embedded in the genes of our kids?
What you see of military life on the news are the battles, the post-traumatic stress, and a lot of homecomings. But a homecoming is just a snapshot—everything leading up to it and everything afterward are what really make up this life. The reality is that we’re moving every two or three years, raising children alone during deployments, and living away from our families and friends.
In 2015, John was deployed to Afghanistan again, the first time he’d gone as a husband and a father. Our son, Teo, was 10 months old. John celebrated Teo’s first birthday on FaceTime—we’re Korean American, and the first birthday is a big deal in our culture so that was nice.
When service members return home, they have to reintegrate with their families and also with civilian society. It can feel like going on a first date again. There can be a funny awkwardness. Our son was 15 months, so it wasn’t a huge change for him. But I have friends whose kids cried, saying, “Who is this person?”
The military spouses in the community really lift each other up. When my husband was on assignment, my neighbor mowed our lawn. On Thanksgiving I was alone and had no energy to cook so a friend dropped off food without my asking. People offer to watch your kids if you need to do anything. Everyone understands what you’re going through.
I finally felt part of this community when I went to stay with my family in New Jersey and realized that my civilian friends didn’t truly understand what I was going through. John had deployed to Afghanistan, and I realized I felt more comfortable in the military world, where there is a shared sense of purpose. I watched the news carefully, but my friends and family were disconnected from it.
I’ve been figuring out life as a military spouse on a day-to-day basis. We’ve moved four times since 2013. One day the Army will say: You’re going to Kansas or Germany or Georgia. When our kids were little, they didn’t mind. Now, at seven and five, they’re realizing they have to leave their friends. But all their friends are leaving too. I say, “Maybe we’ll go to a base where your old friends are. It’s an adventure.”
Making new friends every two to three years as an adult is hard, too. It’s like dating: You have to put yourself out there. You introduce yourself to the neighbors even if you don't like making small talk or are feeling anxious. There are spouses’ clubs at every installation and stroller strong moms’ groups and hiking groups. There’s a Facebook page for every base, where you can find everything you need after a move: a new dentist, a hair stylist, a therapist.
I’ve worked on this photo project through two kids and two deployments because I want to bridge the civilian-military divide. I knew so little about military life before I met John. Service members have told me about losing friends in war and witnessing others get wounded and then returning to a world where people weren’t aware of the ongoing military operations. They’d be asked, is there still a war going on? It was like a punch in the gut.
Last year I facilitated photography workshops with military spouses and children and held a public art exhibition of their work in a park in Leavenworth, Kansas, the town outside the military installation where we now live. I wanted to provide a platform for people to tell their stories and heal through photography and connection. One spouse said, “My story is so boring. I’m just a stay-at-home mom.” That’s not true. Her story is important, too.
Now, the news is dominated by Afghanistan. While it’s hard to read headlines about how many people were left behind, there’s also a lot of good happening. Thousands of evacuees are arriving, and some of my neighbors and friends have been deployed or sent on assignment to help with their resettlement.
I see a picture of my friend David Kim on the floor of a C-17 plane packed with the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division, the last unit out of Afghanistan. Nearly everyone is passed out on top of their gear and each other. They have been working tirelessly to get as many people out as possible. They don’t see themselves as heroes or villains. They are just trying to do their jobs and they are exhausted. I think of his wife Alice, who is also in the Army, and their three young boys, and I know they are weary, too.
On Facebook, my friend Andria Williams posted a note from her husband David Johanson, who is in Bahrain witnessing the arrival of Afghan men, women, and children: “These are their first steps into a new life,” he wrote, “a whole new life, which is an overwhelming idea.” After scrolling through so many angry posts, I started to feel some hope.
There may never be another conflict like World War II where we can definitively say, we won! Instead, wars could end like Afghanistan, with civilians left behind, veterans scrambling to help, people falling from a plane taking off from Kabul. That scene reminded me of September 11, 2001, and what started it all: innocent civilians falling to their deaths.
For the military community, the fact that the war is over doesn’t mean they get to return to civilian life. They’re still doing war fighting exercises and the training that can save service members’ lives. They—and their family members—are always in a state of preparation for war. We can never say, “Ok, it’s over.” For us, the question is: “What’s next?”
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Arin Yoon's work about military families.