Stories Around the Table (“Stories”) is exactly what it intimates: a collection of short stories about life in and around the military. Male and female military spouses, service-members, mothers of service-members, and children of service-members all gather around an invisible but proverbial table and take turns showing their battle scars and strength. Tales of loss, pain, struggle, and challenges meld with those of love, opportunity, inspiration, and friendship to accurately depict the realities and rewards of military life.
The original inspiration for the book came from a phone call Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito received at Elva Resa, Stories’ publisher, from a young military spouse. The young woman was facing several military life challenges. “We sent her a variety of books and community resources, but I really wanted to invite her to my kitchen table, to have lunch with other military spouses who understand her life,” says Karen. “I often find support when I’m talking with a friend over coffee or lunch. I wanted to try to create that type of environment—lunch with friends—with this kind of book. That young spouse who called me was stationed in a remote location far away from me so I couldn’t meet her for lunch physically. But with a book like Stories, we can create a virtual table and bring all these awesome military friends together.”
Karen met Terri Barnes, Stories’ editor, in 2013. Both were attending an annual spouse summit hosted by Military.com in Washington, D.C. At the conference, Karen pitched her idea to several military spouses at the event. Terri was on board right away, and many of the people Karen spoke with that day became authors featured in Stories. Over forty individuals contributed, amounting to over fifty chapters of diverse and moving military-life stores.
A Palm Tree’s Roots
In her chapter, “Our Roots: Not Deep but Far and Wide,” Susan A. Phalen, an Air Force daughter, wrote that her military family is “like a palm tree with strong roots that fan out to great distances.” Rather than growing deep, her family’s roots are spread out so they are “flexible enough to survive the shifting winds and the occasional typhoon life throws.” The same is true for her family’s incredible network of military family friends, who they have maintained for a lifetime despite the fact that they are fanned out throughout the country. By sharing stories like Phalen’s, Stories extends every military family’s network out even further, strengthening it by connecting readers to strangers who have similar struggles and celebrations.
Amy Bushatz, author of the chapter, “Something’s Rank,” emphasized the bonds of this network. I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy about her chapter, which addresses the unique challenges the rank system has on military relationships. In our discussion, Amy addressed how the high pressure environment of a military lifestyle puts issues that may seem small under a microscope. We also discussed the very unique nature of establishing relationships with other military spouses. She said, “in non-military life you hang out with people you cross paths with, people you have commonalities with. In military life, your only commonality might be that your spouses’ work in the same area.”
Throughout the book, there are stories of unlikely friendships that resulted from the military’s way of throwing people together into these strange, seemingly forced friendships. Part of building relationships as a military spouse includes separating yourself from rank issues, even though they dictates so strongly what service-member spouses do at their job. Amy, an Army wife and associate editor at Military.com, gives this advice, which can be applied personally and professionally: “When you approach a group of people you may not have something in common with, look at it this way: These people are going to teach me something. I should surround myself with people who are different from me – because they will teach me something. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes.” These words of wisdom are the foundation for growing your own far and wide network of roots.
Fanning Out the Roots
When approached to contribute a chapter to Stories, Lori Volkman, former communications director of the Military Spouse JD Network (“MSJDN”), was actually already working on writing her own books and a number of other pieces. She had several stories about pre-deployment and deployment, but she wanted to use this opportunity to write about something a lot of people were not talking about: reintegration. Lori compiled excerpts from her works and created the chapter, “Marriage Pig Latin.”
I had the opportunity to interview Lori and ask her a few questions about her contribution. I asked her to elaborate on why she chose the topic of reintegration. “I wanted to give a voice to people who think they’re crazy. Kind of like why I helped start MSJDN. When Mary [Reding] came to me and said she wanted to start it and wanted me to be the communications director, I said ‘Yes! How many of us are there?’ Mary responded, ‘TWO!’”
The point of her chapter is to assuage the feeling that you’re alone in this struggle, and the same can be said for the whole book. Everyone has trials and tribulations in life, but military-connected families have that unique layer of issues to deal with on top of life’s surprises.
The theme “you are not alone” resonates through the whole book, offering a sense of comfort in the fact that you are not in fact crazy. MSJDN, a collection of attorneys “married-to-the-military,” have their own unique struggles, and collectively as a group we work to address admissions issues and build a network to help career transitions. Stories serves as a reminder that MSJDN members are not alone in their struggle balancing the military with other issues (i.e., maintaining career objectives despite constant military moves and law school debt), but it also reminds us that there are still those who are battling tougher obstacles against the same move and deployment riddled backdrop. It is humbling to read the stories of the other families that are not alone: the military families who have lost loved ones to war or disease, the military families raising children with special needs, the military families struggling to build families, or the military families struggling to balance civilian and military lives.
When talking about Stories with Lori, I told her that when I’m sitting around a table with MSJDN members, In Gear Career members, or military couples in general, I don’t hear a lot of the positive, encouraging stories like those in Stories. I hear, and often participate in, a lot of complaining, or perhaps venting. I asked Lori to comment on that, and her response was:
“So much of what we hear and see in mainstream media about the military is civilians talking about damaged soldiers, PTSD, families falling apart, children abandoned, and so on. Negativity sells. But giving a positive voice also sells, not just to a military audience, but more importantly also to a civilian audience. Terri Barnes, the editor of Stories, wanted just that.”
Further fanning out that wide network of roots, Lori put me in touch with Terri, and I asked to comment on the positive tone of the book. Terri shared that when she was talking to writers about their contributions, she did not tell them to avoid writing about bad experiences. Rather, she asked them to tell a story from their life that illustrated a conflict they overcame, but to frame it “as if you’re giving advice to someone going through the same situation.” Terri commented that this way of sharing stories, aimed at giving advice rather than “one-upping” someone’s story of conflict, would better serve everybody in the end.
Terri and I also discussed the diverse subject matter of the book, which accurately portrays normal people having normal life problems just like everyone else, only against the backdrop of military life. In most cases, Stories authors were not asked to share specific stories, though Karen and Terri did have a few topics in mind they specifically wanted addressed. Instead, the stories came together organically, with some writers contributing chapters on topics Karen and Terri had not even thought of. Terri says, “You just don’t know what stories people have. Stories are not written on their faces, you have to get to know them to know their stories. That’s what this book is about – telling our stories shows how we’re different, how our experiences are different, but they also connect us and show us what we have in common.”
I highly recommend Stories to anyone, whether they are a service-member, military spouse, or civilian. It would make a great coffee table book, not just because it is a great conversation starter, but because it is a great thing to have within reach after a day when the military lifestyle has beat you down and you crumble into your couch. Opening it up to any random story will make you feel humbled, grateful, and best of all, not alone.
Whether you were the hostess or new-meat, as a military spouses you can remember all the times you have sat around a table and swapped stories. You can also recall a feeling like the military lifestyle storm was blowing you over, but somehow those widespread roots kept you grounded. The next time you find yourself at one of these tables, share your stories in a way that helps guide others, and focus on further fanning out that network of roots.
Karen said it best in her own words, “I also believe this type of book can help bridge understanding between military and civilian families. I’d like to see more Stories events in communities across the US, using this book as a catalyst for conversation. Stories connect people.”
In closing, I’d like to pull one last quote from the book. It is from a chapter called “The Perfect Move,” by Brenda Pace, the wife of an Army veteran. Brenda wrote:
“Some duty stations have provided me with more training ground for cultivating contentment than others, but there have always been valuable lessons to learn, and treasured relationships to enjoy wherever Uncle Same has sent our family. This is a time-honored truth for military spouses. Historical records describe Martha Washington journeying to the encampments of the Revolutionary War during the long winter months. Mrs. Washington was born into the social elite and could have stayed comfortably at home, yet she made this grueling trip each winter to tend wounded soldiers, host guests, encourage other military wives, and support her soldier husband. She wrote: ‘The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.’”
 On a totally unrelated note, here is an awesome article about Susan Phalen.