The 15 Years of War book just became available on June 1st. The author, Kristine Schellhaas, has been writing it for 5 years! It includes her accounts of meeting and marrying a military man, supporting him through several combat deployments, giving birth to their children, and loving him through tragic loss and grief. In between her accounts are her Marine husband’s narration of his own experiences: training, war, witnessing death, returning home, and dealing with difficult family members. The couple each shares their stories with honesty and humor that make you feel like you are sitting down and swapping stories around the table while sharing a favorite drink. They even share some of their email conversations from his 4 deployments! Last week, I was lucky to meet Kristine, and sit down to chat about her book and her writing journey. (My words are in regular text, hers are in italics.)
An Interview with the Author of the 15 Years of War Book
I asked: The 15 Years of War book will speak to a military and a civilian audience. Who did you originally have in mind when you started writing it?
Kristine answered: When I began this journey, I didn’t set out to write a book. At the moment, I was just trying to capture the emails exchanged with my husband throughout four wartime deployments to save for our children. Reading through those emails drudged up all kinds of emotions in me, everything from humorous stories raising kids to very dark times in our marriage.
Once I decided to share our family’s story with the world, my goals were to help bridge the civilian-military divide, so I targeted the civilian world. So many people want to know more about this lifestyle, but don’t know the questions to ask, or are afraid of starting a conversation. My hope with sharing our story is to provide examples of military training, combat deployments, raising a family in a high-operational tempo, and how military spouse unemployment is a very real issue that faces our families today. I also thought about how this book could help relationships between spouses, offering them specific examples to aid in discussion.
15 Years of War tells the story of every military family, by telling the story of one.
In some ways, the 15 Years of War story is the same as many modern military families. Because he was already an infantry officer before September 11, 2001, they knew that the terrorist acts would change their lives, but they did not know what to expect from modern war and deployments. Ross soon deployed to Iraq, then later to Afghanistan and Japan. Kristine faced the typical military spouse challenges: multiple moves all over the country, giving birth alone, struggling to find work and make friends, and making the most of a horrible duty station (29 Palms, shudder!) This is what first attracted me to the book—the Schellhaas experience and narrative is similar to my own. My husband and I met in 2000, and he joined the military in 2001, so I too have witnessed 15 years of war, and gone through similar deployments and life experiences. For so much of the book, I was nodding and smiling, thinking, “I remember that!” and “We were there, too!” She describes some of her early “rookie mistakes,” like moving home during the first deployment, and watching too many news stories on TV, as well as trying to plan a baby around a deployment. Yep, I’ve been there!
I asked: Many of my readers are young military girlfriends and new spouses. If you could give some advice about military life to the “younger you,” back before your wedding day, what would you say?
Kristine answered: The first thing I would do is start throwing plans out the window. I am a huge planner. I love organizing calendars, planning vacations, having short-term and long-term plans with where our family will be, or even where I’ll be personally. All that happened was that my expectations were crushed and I was left utterly disappointed when things didn’t work out my way.
Flexibility is key. You can still plan those vacations, but try to take them around federal holidays. Of course I always recommend getting travel insurance as a backup. Finally, I didn’t know how hard it would be to maintain a career, especially when getting stationed at remote duty stations. I’d say to look for other opportunities outside of your chosen career field and volunteer. Those volunteers are usually the first hired when there’s a job opening.
15 Years of War contains a true tragic death story.
In the midst of the humor and good advice, the 15 Years of War book also includes several chapters that no one would want to go through—the death of a child. Both Kristine and Ross describe their grief and slow healing process after the tragic drowning death of their 1 year old son. Even though it is written in a calm tone that results from several years of healing and counseling, the raw emotions and vivid descriptions had me bawling. This terrible event nearly destroyed their marriage, but Kristine’s overall message is that the only way to move through grief is to focus on the positives, and to continually choose happiness. Her strength, perseverance, and positive attitude carried her and her husband through some of their darkest days.
I asked: You describe the heartbreak and grief over your son’s death so vividly, yet with calm honesty. How hard was it to write those sections? How long did it take to be able to think or talk about the event with some level of control? What was the best thing you did to help you move forward in your grief?
Kristine Answered: Writing about losing my son and getting those emotions down on paper was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I spent weeks crying on and off because it dredged up so many emotions, but thankfully I had time on my side. It had been six years and it was much easier to reflect back to those moments. I knew that I had to keep working on it to get through the section to record it. I knew our experience would help others or even possibly save another child from losing his or her life.
What has helped me the most get through the challenges and grief in my life is looking at life with a new perspective. I was in a really bad place and I knew if I wanted to be miserable for the rest of my life, no one would have expected anything more from me. But I would have lost my marriage and my son in the process. I wasn’t willing to lose anything more. I also began to cut negativity out of my life and focused on the positives. I had to choose happiness over and over again. I like to call it the pursuit of perspective.
The 15 Years of War narrative is delightfully honest and open.
Throughout the book, I appreciated Kristine and Ross’s honesty. They both tell it like it is: they don’t pretend to be perfect spouses or parents, and they don’t make themselves into heroes. Even though Ross is now a senior officer, he doesn’t brag about his achievements. Instead, it’s clear that his long career comes from a true love of the Marine Corps and the men who serve with him. Similarly, when Kristine relates details about the challenges of military spouse life, she lays out the good, the bad, and the ugly. Military life has its silver linings, but it certainly isn’t easy for the service member or the family. Even if you are not at all familiar with the military, the book will provide some excellent background for the true lives of military families, and realistic ways the civilian community can help.
I asked: Both you and your husband speak honestly about some of the areas where the military falls short: whether it is old, dated housing, inadequate schools, or logistical planning issues. In what ways have you seen those failures improved in the past 15 years?
Kristine answered: The housing situation has been greatly improved since 9/11. Many military families don’t realize that the majority of homes available on base in the early 2000’s were built in the 1960’s with little to no improvements made. Maintenance requests could take a month or longer even for minor issues and we didn’t have the services that we do today. Outsourcing to housing providers has greatly improved housing overall, and while not perfect, it’s light years from what it once was.
I also believe the military learned many lessons and implemented positive changes from the numerous deployments. We have a seasoned military support system and expert leaders who are better equipped for making those tough choices overseas.
Finally, poor performing schools at some duty stations are still problematic, but families now have the ability to research and make the best decision for their family before they get there. For some that may be geo-baching, homeschooling, or taking an active role at the school itself as a volunteer. Parents may also decide they want to provide more at-home curriculum to supplement what is being taught at public school as well. Overall, families are better equipped to make more informed decisions.
The 15 Years of War book contains great advice for Military Families
I think that most military families–from any branch–can appreciate this book. The only part of the book I did not really relate to was the portion that details Kristine’s challenges with her mother-in-law. Even before they were married, Kristine and Ross knew that his mother had a tendency to be controlling. She gradually became increasingly manipulative and hurtful, and targeted Kristine in cruel, irrational ways. While I appreciate Kristine’s lessons learned from years of emotional abuse, I didn’t connect with them at all. Many military wives have an awkward relationship with their husband’s parents, especially if they eloped or didn’t spend any time together before getting married. However, I was lucky to meet my husband in my home town, and date him for years before we married. I knew his family, they knew me, and they always welcomed me. Because our parents all live fairly close together, we never had to choose which family to visit during his time off. Our families have always been very respectful of our time together and our need for space. But I see so many in-laws that force themselves into situations where they are simply not welcome–births, Homecomings, holiday leave blocks, etc. If this is more like your experience, then you will appreciate how Kristine learned (slowly and painfully) to handle that.
I asked: Throughout the book, you described the decline of your relationship with your mother-in-law, as she became unstable and toxic. Many military wives have never met their in-laws, or have a very strained relationship. What do you think are some good guidelines that everyone should follow for in-law relationships? Are there rules you wish you had followed sooner?
Kristine answered: I think everyone needs to first be kind and try to put yourself in another person’s shoes — try to see things from their perspective. Then decide on your priorities and what is truly important to you. Maybe something is a big deal and you’re not willing to compromise, okay fine… no problem. Make your decision and let others know in as nice a way as possible. Our counselors relayed that all bad news should come directly from the blood relative– it will always be taken better coming from them, and more often than not, they won’t push back on them.
Counseling also taught us that we had the right as a family to making decisions (what some call the inner circle) without letting others outside that circle influence the decisions, be it through unsolicited advice, guilt trips, or carrot dangling. If the extended family truly cares about you, then they’ll respect and honor the ground rules you’ve set. Military One Source offers 12 free counseling sessions a year per issue. I highly recommend talking to a counselor, they’ve been a great asset in our relationship.
Everything happens quickly in military life and oftentimes that’s reflected in young marriages. Some moms may have an issue with that as they don’t see the couple as being mature enough to make decisions. In those cases, I’d definitely seek the expertise of a counselor. It’s hard for moms to combat advice from a trained professional. Finally, don’t say things you’ll regret, even if the other person is saying awful things… you’ve just giving them ammo. Be the better person.
So if you are looking for a book full of honesty, humor, military pride, and a touch of tragedy, then the 15 Years of War book is for you! If you are new to the military, and want to know how all the older spouses make everything look so easy, then you can learn some of the secrets in the book. If you are curious how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars changed the military deployment tempo and affected military families, you can see the direct results in the 15 Years of War book. And if you just want a reality check to see if your crazy military life is truly normal, then you will find out by reading this book. I recommend it for any military family, spouse, or parent.