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An Army Wife Reflects On 'When The Men Are Gone'

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought in an age of embedded reporters, soldiers' blogs and YouTube videos from both the battlefield and the home front.

Debut author Siobhan Fallon employs the more traditional, low-tech medium of short fiction to describe the lives of soldiers, and especially their families, in her new collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Fallon is a military wife herself, and her new book is based largely on the experiences of Army families in Fort Hood, Texas. Fallon received an MFA from the New School in New York City, and she'll soon be leaving for Jordan, where her husband, an Army major, will be stationed.

When soldiers leave on a deployment, she writes, their spouses somehow manage. They improvise. They take the strangeness and make it normal. In her stories, wives have to deal with oil changes and home repairs -- as well as loneliness, the crises of adolescent kids and sometimes infidelity and death.

"As soon as the brigades start rotating out, you have this eerie sort of quietness," Fallon tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "And you just start to notice that there are more women and children because you don't have the balance of the males. Suddenly, you're just very aware of the families."

Those families, she says, learn to adapt while their soldiers are away. And sometimes, when their soldiers return, they pretend like they're starting all over again.

"When the soldiers come home, the spouses want to have a fresh start," she says. "A lot of times, the soldiers really don't want to share all of the experiences with their spouse from when they were in the war zone. But then when they come home, it's like starting anew, so it gives this whole feel of a new life starting."

Interview Highlights

On the fishbowl effect of an Army base

"The spouses are made very aware that their actions on the home front have an effect on their soldier at all times. An army base is a bit of a fishbowl, and I don't want to say that people are in each other's business, but you're hoping that your neighbors are doing OK. And when you think they might not be, people have a tendency to try and help them out. And that could be seen as nosy or it could be seen as being really responsible, but it's a fine line and because it's such a small world, I think the wives are aware of presenting a stable life."

On finding it hard to socialize with civilians

"From my experience, you have so much in common with the other spouses that so much is already understood when you've formed those friendships. You've been through a deployment before, so you have that in common right away. And especially in a place like Fort Hood, where so much of the community is military to begin with, you're surrounded by spouses who have so much in common with you that it's just easier to form those friendships, instead of the civilian friendships that would include the husband that you suddenly don't have."

On why there are some things in the military, like asking a military spouse for a loan, that are just unheard of

"If a spouse is having some kind of money problem, that might not look or reflect well on her husband and how they're keeping their finances. If she asks another spouse in her husband's unit [for a loan], it might get to the chain of command that somebody's having money troubles and then it reflects poorly on the soldier. So there are certain things that spouses might not always want to share, especially with strangers or people who aren't their closest friends."

On the difficulties of deployment

"Each time, I forget how much I would depend on my husband for these small details in my life that I didn't even realize he was doing. And then suddenly he was gone and I would have no idea what plumber we used or how to turn off the furnace -- these things that I can't even call him to find out. So it's definitely a tremendous readjustment when your soldier leaves. And it's almost as big of a readjustment when he returns, because after a year, you've actually finally figured out how to be independent. ... It's natural that there would be a little tension in that situation."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.