It was 2003 when America went to war with Iraq. The Marines were at the front lines, “the tip of the spear,” and my boyfriend of three years was with them. He had been a Marine for two years at that point, which was just long enough to go to Boot Camp– Infantry School– Infantry Unit– Iraq.
Meanwhile, I was in college. I had always planned to spend a semester studying abroad in Paris so I could complete my minor in French. So while my boyfriend spent his first deployment fighting in the desert, I spent the deployment in Paris, France.
Living overseas during an American war is a unique challenge, especially for milsos.
First, there was the issue of communication problems. Because my French phone numbers required international codes, he was not able to call them, even when he was authorized to make phone calls home. For six months I did not hear the sound of his voice. He had no Internet or email access on the front lines, so we were limited to snail mail. Even then, we hit a major snag: he had no stamps. Troops in combat zones can send mail for free…as long as it is going to America. To send letters internationally, he needed to use an appropriate number of US stamps. Living in Paris, I had no way to get American stamps. We had to wait for his parents to mail him stamps so that he could then mail me my first letter. The first month was agonizing. I remember crying–often and alone.
You won’t have a support system if you are overseas during deployment
In my case, I did not have a single friend or family member in the country where I spent most of the deployment. I participated in a study abroad program with a mixed group of other Americans. None of us went to the same schools or knew each other before the semester in Paris. We were sent to host families throughout the city. Thankfully, my host family was wonderful. But the fact remained that on the day my Marine crossed into Iraq, I did not know a single military wife or girlfriend who understood what I was going through. I spent most of the day with people who did not even speak English. I had made a few friends in the program who took me out for coffee (for which I am eternally grateful!) Other than that, I coped by focusing on my schoolwork, making travel plans, exploring the city, and meeting new French friends. Sometimes, after a day in French classes and before returning to my French family’s apartment, I would stop by the local church for some quiet time. I felt that in the whole crowded city, God was the only one who understood English perfectly and could listen to me.
Political unrest is a safety concern when you live in a foreign country
The third major issue of being overseas was political unrest. It was no secret that France did not approve of America going to war with Iraq. In fact, there were frequent protests in the streets and demonstrations against the war, especially around the American Embassy. We often saw graffiti like “Americans go home” or “Ferme ta Bush” which was a play on words meaning “Shut up, Bush.” When I met strangers, I often pretended to be British instead of American, because it was safer. (I once convinced an American family in Italy that I was a French girl who spoke English “a little bit”… but that’s another story.) If I did reveal my nationality, I had to be prepared for a political/religious/moral debate to occur in French for the next hour. Back home, America had launched its own counter-protest. Remember when they renamed French fries “freedom fries?” I received chain emails from Americans reminding me to boycott all French products. I had to laugh, since in my case that would mean not eating for the next six months.
Lack of news can be a blessing or frustration
Because I had limited access to the Internet, I saw very little news footage of the Iraq war. The first week, when the bombs were dropping and the troops were marching, I was mostly walking around the Eiffel Tower or crying quietly in my room. While everyone else in America watched the Saddam Hussein statue come down in Baghdad, I was probably watching a futball (soccer) match. In some ways, I missed the entire war. At the time, that frustrated me and I wished I could know where my boyfriend was and what he was doing. Looking back, it may have been a blessing. I couldn’t watch the evening news and learn how many cities were invaded each day. Living far from a military base, I wasn’t part of the rumor mill that caused everyone to hold their breaths when another American was killed. I could keep my head down and stay busy.
Is it wise to live overseas during deployment?
Despite all the challenges of living overseas during deployment, it was probably easier for me to be in a foreign country during that time instead of at a military base. Everyone says that the best way to get through a deployment is to distract yourself with projects and stay busy. Living overseas is the ultimate example of a busy project. There are cities to explore, museums to visit, new food to try, and a new language to learn. I would hesitate to recommend living overseas during a deployment to anyone who doesn’t realize what they are getting into. At the same time, I am glad I spent the semester learning and growing in Paris, instead of being stressed and worried in my college dorm. For us, thankfully, it worked. It wasn’t easy, and it took a while to recover, but we are happily married now! If you are considering living abroad during a deployment, make sure you straighten out the communication lines beforehand. Then stay safe, hope for the best, and try to have fun!