Molly didn’t feel particularly patriotic as she said goodbye to her husband, a Navy doctor, early one morning in September. He was leaving on his second deployment in nine months, with just four days’ notice (he’d gotten only 36 hours’ notice ahead of his previous operation). And although his initial mission had been to the Middle East—on an aircraft carrier as a critical-care physician in case of a COVID-19 outbreak on board—this time he was deploying within the continental United States to support a hospital that was overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID patients.
The pandemic had been raging in the United States for almost a year and a half. He was leaving behind five children, including his 10-month-old daughter, during a time when support for parents was particularly hard to come by. “The civilian world is asking a lot of the military world right now,” Molly sighed. “And … really, it’s hard.” (I agreed to withhold Molly’s last name, and those of several other military spouses in this story, because the military discourages service members and their families from discussing their deployments with the public.)
Molly’s husband is one of 4,700 military medical personnel who have deployed for COVID-relief purposes since March 2020 (another 5,100 have deployed to aid vaccination efforts). They are doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and administrative workers, and they’ve shown up at 81 hospitals in 60 cities, in 19 states and the Navajo Nation. My husband is training to join them. As an internal-medicine resident at a Navy facility, he won’t be eligible to deploy until 2023 at the earliest, but these days he is frequently in close contact with contagious COVID patients. His colleagues are similarly exposed, especially the hospital nurses and attending physicians. We’ve spent the past 18 months watching our friends work impossibly hard at home, only to see many of them sent far away as the coronavirus spirals out of control in areas with low vaccination rates. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that, by refusing to do something as simple as getting a shot, people are taking advantage of the military community’s altruism. Families like Molly’s, and mine, want to serve our country and care for people in need. But deployments to help people who have decided not to help themselves or their communities—and who simultaneously claim to be patriots—can leave us feeling conflicted.
Molly’s husband’s first COVID deployment, early in the pandemic, “had a very patriotic feel,” she told me. He was going to serve his country, to face a common, looming enemy with the sense that we were all in this together. But since then, vaccines have become widely available, and many of the most overwhelmed hospitals are now being filled by those who have chosen to forgo vaccination while less than 66 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. “I don’t fully blame” unvaccinated people, Molly said, “because I think that there is so much misinformation out there.” Military doctors and their families “respond to the call when it comes.” And yet this time, her husband isn’t focused on protecting fellow soldiers or leading a charge into the great unknown. He’s being sent away from his family, his friends, and his own patients to aid a mission fueled in part by a blatant rejection of his expertise. “People say—especially a lot of conservatives say—‘Oh, we support our military,’” Molly said. “They wave their flags. They wear the red, white, and blue. But then what are they doing to help [stop] the … spread of this disease?”
“I remember the vivid moment he told me” he was redeploying, says Jennifer, a former Army spouse, of her husband’s COVID mission. He’d been home from his previous deployment for only 18 months, and she had just started to get their daughter to trust that he was going to come home after taking a run. “Of course, I got upset and cried,” she told me. But she also felt confident that he was the perfect person for the job. Their family had already been sick with the virus, and his specialty as a nephrologist made him a valuable asset for treating this particular disease. Still, the goodbye was hard, and the deployment had no clear end date. It was early in the pandemic, and Jennifer had two children at home, but without the typical support systems. No family visits or babysitters or special activities. The kids got clingier, “which is fair,” she said, “but not being able to take a shower by yourself … My escape was putting [them] to bed and then just watching Netflix.” When she looks back on that time, “I definitely do not feel like I was a victim,” she said. “I definitely supported all of his deployments. But I can’t lie … It’s a sacrifice for the family.” Earlier this year, Jennifer’s husband left the military. “No deployments was a perk,” she said.
Captain Tracy Koblinski, a nurse and individual-ready reservist in the Air Force, has traveled to six hospitals in 19 months to support COVID-relief efforts. Folks will “throw out there, ‘Well, you chose to’” become a nurse and join the military, Tracy told me. “‘That was your choice.’ And it’s like, But if I didn’t choose to do it, and you surely didn’t, then who would be there to help?” She’s been struck by the lack of respect and understanding for her sacrifice and that of her colleagues. For one thing, “you don’t have your normal life,” she said—no family, no pets, no sleeping in your own bed (many deployed health-care workers spend multiple months living alone in hotels). And lots of life happens only once: People get married, babies are born, you miss graduations and anniversaries and recitals and games. Your kids learn to walk. Older generations pass away. And those waiting for the deployed to finally return home—partners, children, colleagues, extended families—are forced to manage life during a pandemic alone. So when people say things like, “Hey, I am patriotic, but it’s not my job to go and [get vaccinated] even though I support the military,” Koblinski said, “they say one thing but the actions show differently.” The fact that so many Americans are refusing to get vaccinated is “making the job a lot harder for us,” she added.
Chaplain (Captain) Scott Edwards of the Mississippi National Guard has been providing emotional and spiritual support to military-readiness teams in Tupelo—counseling soldiers, helping them find religious leaders, and talking through what they’re feeling. And despite the fact that the North Mississippi Medical Center has some of the best resources and facilities in the state, Edwards described the soldiers as experiencing Iraq War levels of stress. “The reality is that many of these COVID patients that come into the ward, they don’t leave,” he told me. Witnessing that level of grief and loss is profoundly painful. And although typical doctors and nurses would have strong bonds with their colleagues to support them during difficult days, “our active-duty component, well, they’ve only been there for a couple weeks or a couple months,” Chaplain (Major) Caleb Clark of the 172nd Airlift Wing, also in Mississippi, explained to me. “They don’t have those relationships.” People like Edwards and Clark, who are working hard to keep up morale and offer guidance, are “carrying a lot of burden for a lot of people, all the time,” Clark said.
Despite what’s being asked of them, and the pressure, and the anguish, every single person I spoke with for this story said some version of the following: We chose this path. We joined this fight. We love our country and we’re ready to help. Chaplains and mental-health providers step in to alleviate the burden on the providers, as the providers step in to alleviate the burden on the patients. “Yeah, we’re tired,” Clark said, “but we’re going to keep running toward the fire. That’s what we want to do.”
“The people that buy into the military are doing it because we live in a society where we care about each other,” Molly reminded me. If only the civilian world felt the same about us.