When I was in the military, I was stationed in Germany. My kids were very young at the time, and I asked if I could bring my family over so that they could be stationed with me. The Army agreed, but on the condition that I stay in an extra year. I relented because it was the only way I knew I’d be able to see my kids.
Deployments can last 30 to 45 days. I remember coming back from deployment to see my wife and our twins, who were about two at the time. The kids didn’t know who I was. I was a stranger to them. That was a bitter pill to swallow. I made the decision to separate from the military. I was proud to be a soldier, but I’m a family man and those years aren’t replaceable.
The truth is that life as a military father is stressful. You have to learn to put out of your mind all of the things you’re missing and focus on the mission. It comes down to trust. You have to be able to trust your partner. If you don’t have any trust in your partner, then you’re not going to be focused on the mission. You’re going to be focused on What’s my partner doing? That lack of focus can be really dangerous. You’re dealing with a soldier who’s carrying live ammo and a weapon with them, and if they’re feeling down or frustrated or depressed then it’s obviously a huge concern for everyone.
That puts an incredible strain on marriages. There was a lot of divorce in the military and a lot of infidelity and spousal abuse.
I had a pretty good relationship with my wife and I felt I could trust her, so that part never weighed on me, but I witnessed soldiers that had been cheated on. That exists everywhere, but in the military, you’re with these guys 24/7 and we tend to be a lot closer than just your average coworkers. So it can affect the unit more when one of your guys is going through that kind of thing. There’s no way not to let it affect you. That’s just human nature.
One of the things that had the tendency to make life difficult was the rampant alcohol use in the military. If there was going to be an event, there were going to be kegs. There was no way around it. Alcohol is everywhere. It’s even promoted in the cadences! I wasn’t a drinker. I drank only once in my entire military service. That was a choice that I made because I knew that I couldn’t put myself in a situation where I wasn’t aware of my surroundings and where I could do something that could affect either my personal life or my military career.
But, when the guys are in garrison and they’re single living in the barracks, then they’re going to do what everyone else is doing. And, quite often, that’s drinking until it’s time for formation in the morning.
Adjusting back to civilian life can present its own challenges. There are some things in the military that you just never lose. I walk into a room and I’m asked several times, “Are you in the military, or were you in the military?” I’m a military guy. Does that create strain within your relationships with family or your friends and loved ones? Definitely. The military breaks you down and builds you up the way they want to. You can’t just drop that and leave it all behind or forget that any of it ever happened.
Being a soldier and a father are two of the hardest jobs you will ever have. Some days I’m amazed that I was able to handle doing both. Somehow, each job managed to keep me grounded enough to keep going.
–As told to Jeremy Brown
Jose Ruiz is former Army Sergeant. He lives outside of Pittsburgh with his family