A friend from college texted me the other day. She was worried about her father, a doctor, contracting COVID-19. I told her I had some idea what she might be going through.
When we were roommates, my father was deployed to a dangerous part of Iraq at the height of the surge. Military families were all but invisible in the area of the country where my school was located. I lived a double life during college. To the world, I was a fairly typical college student. In private, my roommate and friend saw me deal daily with the concerns and anxieties of having a dad in harm’s way.
Both of our dads are in risky professions of service to others. During especially difficult times – the COVID-19 pandemic or the surge in Iraq – we live with the knowledge that they may come to serious harm or be called to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The difference, of course, is that this is fairly new to healthcare workers’ families.
Military Families Have a Culture of Readiness
When my father deployed to the al Anbar province during a particularly dangerous time, nothing could have truly prepared our families for the challenges to come. However, we knew we had certain safety nets. In key ways, Iraq is a different situation than this pandemic.
Our service members belonged to units with a clear chain of command and casualty notification procedures. At the time, my mom and brother lived on a small, close-knit post in Germany, with close friends and neighbors almost a literal shout away.
From a financial standpoint, many military families’ day-to-day concerns were paused. Families received their service member’s tax-free paycheck along with hazard pay, family separation pay, and combat pay. On top of that, if the worst should happen, we knew we’d receive a SGLI life insurance and the death gratuity.
We had at least a mild inoculation against shock: the cold comfort that comes with knowing our nation was already at war.
COVID-19 Places Healthcare Workers in Harm’s Way, with Little Support Structure
Doctors, nurses, and orderlies don’t have the same support and social structures as a military unit, where the frequent and massive loss of life is a baked-in possibility. Furthermore, the financial safety net – inadequate though it may sometimes be – that the DoD provides to a service member’s family does not exist for healthcare workers or their families.
Indeed, doctors and hospital workers are not immune to the economic cost of the pandemic.
Hospitals are laying off staff due to the resulting loss of income from canceling elective surgeries. Fewer people mean less help for medical workers who are already stretched very thin and who now may risk more exposure to the virus. For many hospital workers, this is an uncertain time in nearly every respect.
With COVID-19, healthcare workers’ families entered a new world – and almost overnight, it seemed much of our national culture has changed.
COVID-19 created a situation for healthcare workers’ families that is more analogous to the families of police, firefighters, and some of the first troops deployed right after the 9/11 attacks. As we saw immediately following 9/11, Americans thank the frontline folks who are sacrificing to keep them safe. Right now, people are now probably just as – if not more – likely to thank a grocery store worker, delivery person, or nurse as they are a service member in uniform.
“We’re at war; America is at the Mall.”
This Army officer’s 2006 observation became an iconic aphorism in discussions about American foreign policy in Iraq. In talking to friends in the medical profession and their families, I am struck by how much they sound like military families. Questions like, “Why are people still going out during a lockdown? Don’t they know how serious this is?” have the ring of familiarity to me.
I recall feeling adrift as I would bounce between the worlds of a small liberal arts college in New England and a small Army Kaserne in Germany in the grip of frequent reports of deaths and wounds. My friends in the medical profession likely feel the same sense of disorientation when they witness flagrant dismissals of social distancing guidelines.
They are losing or risk losing friends and loved ones they haven’t seen in days or weeks, and some of their fellow Americans can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum in public.
And While We Are Thanking Our Healthcare Workers, Thank Their Spouses and Kids for Their Service
As a military child myself, I’ve always been fond of April and the Month of the Military Child. It is a month of appreciation for the sacrifices of military children around the world. Right now, our healthcare families – the spouses and children behind the doctors and nurses and support staff – need our thanks, too. They are the ones holding down the homefront and keeping things together while their partner is away working long hours. They are sacrificing their time together for the good of the nation. Just as we would thank a service member’s family, these families all deserve our thanks right now.
So Let’s Set The Example and Thank the Heroes – All of Them
There are so many: doctors and nurses, hospital support staff, first responders, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, postal workers, grocery store employees…all these people who are risking their own health to ensure that the rest of us can live through the pandemic.
Military families are great at paying it forward and setting the example. It is my hope that our community will be able to extend its support and to share lessons learned with the families of the new class of heroes. We thank them, support them, and are grateful for all their actions and sacrifices.