Polly Brown married Tom Davis the day after he finished Army OCS in 1969. For Polly, “marrying a soldier seemed surreal.” She did not hold the profession in high regard, but was “committed to her beau” and had “made up her mind to follow him wherever he chose to go.”
After a three-day honeymoon, Tom began parachute training. Almost instantly, Polly looked into “the soul of the military machine” and saw that “the mission came first, before family, before anything.” She asked herself, “What? Me, second?” but tagged along while Tom finished jump school and then Special Forces training.
Believing husbands and wives should share everything, Polly made two parachute jumps—the first frightening, the second enlightening, and the final one because she had nothing more to prove. With Tom’s encouragement, she became a high school sociology teacher and embarked on a life of her own, which she describes in Stumbling Toward Enlightenment: A Wife’s Thirty-year Journey with Her Green Beret (Old Mountain Press, 209 pp., $15, paper; $6.99, Kindle)
They had been married slightly over a year when Tom went to Vietnam. While he was overseas, Polly earned a master’s degree at the University of Georgia.
Initially, Polly talks mostly about raising their children, Thomas IV and Pollyanna, moving from post to post, curing illnesses, raising dogs and cats, and keeping house while Tom pursued adventures around the world. During a three-year tour in Germany, for example, she writes of picturesque travels across Europe.
Back in the States, Polly developed an ever-increasing independence as a college English teacher and department head. She received a PhD from North Carolina State University. Volunteering for profit and non-profit companies earned her jobs at high-levels, which brought greater authority and recognition. At one time, Polly simultaneously chaired Networth, the North Carolina Community College English Association, and her local Kiwanis.
What’s more, throughout her career, she battled—and repeatedly neutralized—multiple sclerosis.
Polly examines topics beyond travels and her teaching and leadership skills. Her strongest message concerns the difficulty of being a military wife with children and her relationship with her husband.
When I entered the Air Force in the mid-1950s, young men with family problems often were told: “If the military wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one.” This attitude still prevailed throughout Polly Davis’ life from 1969 to 2000.
Tom Davis wrote a memoir about his career, The Most Fun I Ever Had with My Clothes On: A March from Private to Colonel. In reviewing his book, I wrote: “I greatly admire Davis because he frequently used his leadership position to challenge authority, mainly to question his superiors.” I feel equal admiration for Polly’s willingness to step on toes when necessary.
Tom attended every school available to him: Special Forces, Mountaineering, SCUBA, Infantry Officer Advanced Course, Ranger, HALO, and Command and General Staff College. He served in England, Germany, Denmark, France, Korea, Zaire, Turkey, Tunisia, Italy, Iraq, and Bosnia. These assignments required him to be away from home for prolonged periods, leaving Polly entirely burdened with their family problems.
Separations from husbands became a way of life for Polly and other Army wives. When the men returned, she says, “What should have been relaxed, joyful homecomings often ended up as several tense days of adjustment.
“Reunions weren’t easy. A pretty standard habit, we wives agreed, was for our men to arrive after a long or even a short deployment and immediately take over. Or make an attempt.” The men immediately sought “to repair what they considered damage done in their absence, whether it was disciplining the children or the dogs or balancing the checkbook.
“First they would question our latest purchase, even groceries, then the reason for the purchase, then criticize it. The unfounded guilt that arose from their misplaced criticism confounded me.” In the best of times, marriage was one great compromise, reached mainly by wives surrendering.
Difficulties were compounded by the fact that, as Polly says, “We wives considered those long periods as sole parents tedious and difficult.”
In the seventies, “military wives were incidental, part of the casualties of the War,” Polly says, arguing that nobody recognized the possibility of PTSD. “We wives were nothing but confused, guiltily wondering what we’d done wrong,” she says.
Soldiers grew introverted and found solace among their peers rather than within their marriages. “Sometimes I felt like I’d lost [Tom] to Ron and those guys on the team.” The needs of Tom’s men—even the most impractical demands—took precedence over the needs of his family, she says, and she did as told because she thought it was the norm.
Yet when husbands deployed, they expected wives to manage everything single-handedly.
As further evidence of men’s domination, Polly cites Tom’s accusations of her “lack of attention to detail” about small mishaps. His military mind sought the same degree of perfection from her that it expected from his men. He failed to realize that he was absent more often than not when family problems arose, and consequently he seldom provided timely solutions.
While in the Air Force, I was guilty of every complaint that Polly makes against military husbands. At that time, I crewed on Strategic Air Command bombers. Every other week we lived in a bunker next to our airplanes; perfection was the only acceptable performance of duty. Like me, many fellow crewmen applied military standards to family life. I left SAC after six years, and did a 180, but it was too late to make amends: My wife divorced me.
To overcome the “still dependent wife” syndrome, Polly encourages soldiers’ wives to build identities of their own. But she had limited success in altering their ingrained behavior. “I’d always found it difficult to perpetuate an outmoded tradition that squelched individual growth,” she writes.
Nevertheless, a growing concern among men that wives were “getting uppity” and a “batch of divorces in the battalion” provided her with a modicum of grim satisfaction. Otherwise, she felt that women were merely their husband’s shadows.
All husbands can benefit from reading Polly’s book, particularly men in highly stressful jobs and those who spend long periods away from home. It is important to understand that Polly is not a whiner. She talks about stumbling to enlightenment without belaboring situations that challenged her along the way. Her criticisms are factual and brief.
For example, describing a time when MS immobilized her for two months, she says: “Tom did the best he could. However, the tension was often so thick I could feel myself chocking. Tom couldn’t do it all.” Following her description of one confrontational dinner, she explains how the children formulated a solution for the conflict, and then changes the subject.
Enlightenment has taught Polly Davis how to move ahead regardless of what gets in her way.