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Author Draws on ‘Outsider’ Perspective

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

NEW YORK, Oct. 19, 2009 – Alison Buckholtz had no desire to marry into the military, but when she fell for her husband, an active-duty Navy pilot, she became a Navy wife.

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Alison Buckholtz’s “Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War” offers insight into the life of a military family with young children during a servicemember’s deployment. Courtesy photo

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The couple married shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Buckholtz’s military education began at the same time.

“I basically thought servicemembers were robots and their spouses were unambitious, at best,” she said. “That was because, growing up, there was no member of my family who had served. I didn’t have any teachers who were in the military, no neighbors.

“I really knew no one [who had served in the military],” she added.

She was thrilled to have her preconceived notions of military life shattered, however. “What I found was much richer and more interesting than what I had thought it to be,” Buckholtz said.

Buckholtz would identify her husband only by his first name, Scott, and his occupation -- an EA-6B Prowler jet pilot who’s serving a 12-month individual augmentation assignment with an Army unit in Iraq. Her learning curve on how to be an officer’s wife was a steep one, she acknowledged. Most military wives whose husbands held the rank her husband held when he deployed for his command tour aboard an aircraft carrier beginning in 2007 hadn’t started out at that level, she explained.

“We were very new to the military,” she said, “so even though I was considered a senior spouse, this was our first deployment with kids. It was all really fresh.”

She said she made the best of it and looked to those who’d been there for support. She also worked hard to make things easier on her two young children, now 6 and 4. Part of that effort was a life-size photo of her husband, a “Flat Daddy,” intended to keep Dad in the forefront of the kids’ minds.

“I had never really thought that Flat Daddy would be a good idea for us,” Buckholtz admitted. “Just knowing my kids and their personalities, it seemed kind of creepy to me. But I try to be open to as many ideas as I can, so I gave it a try.”

She was right. It didn’t work for her kids. In fact, the experience prompted the freelance writer to write an essay published in the New York Times in 2007 that drew interest from several publishing houses as the possible basis for a book about trying to help her kids through their dad’s lengthy absence.

“I think it was because, having not come from a military family myself, and having no military experience, I really did feel like an outsider, and I wrote as an outsider,” Buckholtz said. “During the process of that deployment, I became an insider, and so I had the vocabulary and I had the experiences, but I still had the perspective of an outsider.

“That’s what people wanted to read,” she said.

Love, loss and separation are human experiences to which anyone can relate, she said. The fact that she was telling about them from a military perspective, she added, probably is what made it interesting. So, despite being surprised at the interest her stories generated, she began working on “Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War.”

With the kids going to bed at 6:30 in those days, Buckholtz had her evenings free, and she wrote from 7 p.m. until midnight. Though some find the process of writing to be therapeutic, Buckholtz said, that wasn’t the case for her as she wrote the book.

“It helped me sort out a lot of issues that I had been thinking about since I’d gotten married,” Buckholtz said. “But in terms of being cathartic, it wasn’t an emotional release.”

It may just have been a way to chronicle her family’s experience while her husband was away for the better part of three years, but it did serve a higher purpose. Published by Tarcher/Penguin, “Standing By” provides civilian America a glimpse into the inner workings of a military family experiencing a long absence of a family member. It also allows military families a chance to realize that others have experiences similar to their own.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAlison Buckholtz, author of “Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War,” visits with “Sesame Street” character Elmo on the New York set of a Sesame Workshop “Talk, Listen, Connect” video, Oct. 14, 2009. Courtesy photo by Gil Vaknin  
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