It has been long overdue for America to finally see the strength and constant sacrifices of the families that send their loved ones to combat. With the war in Iraq and Afghanistan going on for a decade, America has rarely gotten the chance to get to know the families who stand behind these men in uniform. They have oftentimes been left in the shadows. The term “the silent ranks” has been used to often describe these selfless women who fell in love with a man in uniform. By no choice of their own, they are forced to stay back while sending their men to combat while maintaining grace, composure, and strength.
The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) filmed a reality show following the lives of seven Army wives while their husbands were deployed to Afghanistan for a year from November 2011. Throughout the episodes (with lots of tears), we saw the struggles these women went through while worrying about the safety of their husbands, raising children without a father, maintaining marriages via Skype, forming bonds with each other, finding healing and comfort within other military wives, living life in desolate Alaska, finding love again after long separations, and finding their inner strength to carry on when things got too tough to handle.
I had the opportunity to interview one of the wives on the show, Sara Dunlap, and her experiences with filming the show and life as an Army wife. Her constantly cheerful personality and smile drew me to her as one of my personal favorites (and she’s a Texas girl). You can read more about her here on OWN’s website.
How did you come upon the opportunity to be a part of this show and what influenced your decision to do it? What did your husband, family, and friends think?
Just two weeks after arriving in Alaska, I saw in the newspaper a docuseries was going to be filmed at Fort Richardson. They were looking for wives that were new to Alaska and going through their first deployment. I truly thought this docuseries could show America what they needed to see, how incredibly hard this is and the myriad of sacrifices military families make day in and day out without even realizing it. After a slew of phone, skype, and person-to-person interviews I was asked to be on the cast. I was floored, 100 percent shocked, humbled, honored, and scared. My husband was thrilled to have me “have a mission” while he was on his. Being on the cast and telling my story gave me a purpose during deployment.
Out of all the ladies, who are you closest to and why?
I am closest to Rynn, I talk to her daily and we see each other each week. We truly have so much in common and she is such an inspiration to me. She has four deployments under her belt and four kids she successfully raised through those deployments. Rynn is the picture of grace and class and is truly a pillar of strength to me.
When you watched yourself on the episodes, are there any moments that you regret or make you uncomfortable to watch?
It is hard to watch the things that you repressed such as the memorials and saying goodbye to Dusty after R&R. Watching it on television brings back all of the same emotions and hurt you felt that day.
What was your husband’s reaction when watching the show chronicling your life while he was gone?
Dusty was extremely proud of me, he had no idea how hard it was on the home front. How much I worried during blackouts or what I did to keep busy. He also loved watching the boys grow up on TV, he missed 10 months of their lives, so to be able to see the little things here and there was special.
The first episode painted fellow cast member, Lindsey Bergeron, as the antagonist and slightly arrogant (which viewers later saw was completely not the case as the season went on). Is there any way that you feel you were portrayed that may not be accurate to whom you really are?
It broke my heart to see my portrayal as the wife that wanted my husband to get out of the Army, the one that couldn’t handle it. It is true that I was the newest Army wife in the bunch, when we began filming Dusty had only been in 14 months but the number of times I said how immensely proud I am and how I want him to become an officer very much outweighed the number of times I said I wanted him to get out. Unfortunately, all you see is me saying I want him out of the Army. I am extremely proud to say Dusty is working on his officer packet now and we are going to make a career out of the Army.
What are some things you did that was not shown on any of the episodes to help pass time during the deployment in Alaska?
My vice during deployment was working out! I would not have stayed sane without my hour of sweating each morning, they filmed me and the gym and running outside training for a 6k but neither of those scenes made the cut. I would workout at the house each morning while the boys were asleep; when it got warmer, I began to run outside and eventually ran a 6k pushing the boys in a double jogger. The show also never showed play dates when mommies get together and let the kids run and play while we vent. Play dates are vital for mommies and kids alike.
Your “famous” quote on the show was, “The man that you put on the plane is not the man you get back.” Since your husband has returned from war, do you still agree with this saying? Why or why not?
I still stand behind my famous quote, my husband has been to war in a combat zone. The things he has seen and heard will never be erased from his memory. The hole in heart left from losing a brother in arms will always be there. Reintegration is hard. For me, the hardest thing to wrap my head around is while I was sleeping peacefully in bed or mopping the kitchen floor my husband was sweeping villages and dodging bullets. All things considered, we are doing great and he is an amazing father and husband and appreciates life and time with us in a whole new way.
What did you expect going into military life? Did the deployment change your views on military life?
I had a very romantic view of the military all I had ever seen was the TV shows about homecomings, what those shows did not allow you to see was the 12 months leading up that sweet moment. All of the challenges, worries, fears, and loneliness that lead up to that amazing moment is what I believe America truly needs to see. Deployment opened my eyes to how incredibly strong our military families are and the immense sacrifice the whole family makes for their country. While your husband is in combat, you are running a household by yourself and your children are missing their father daily, the hole that is left in your heart during that time is something you cannot imagine unless you experience it.
We watched during your husband’s R&R when he told you his desire to stay in the Army and take the route to becoming an Officer. How do you feel about that?
I am so proud of Dusty for choosing to make a career out of serving his country. I am proud that he wants to become an Officer and lead others. I am anxious to see where our Army adventure leads us next.
The show put a heavy emphasis on making sure everyone knew the rank of the spouse. Did that really matter to you? Do you feel there is really a big disconnect between Officers’ wives and Enlisted wives?
There is a rank structure in the military for a reason; there has to be a hierarchy of leadership. In any organization or job, there is always someone in charge. As far as spouses go, there are times rank comes into play and there are times that it doesn’t.
According to Oprah Winfrey on the OWN website, she stated that she had to receive permission from the Pentagon in order to film this type of reality show due to the nature of it. Was there anything in particular that the Army advised you on before going in front of cameras?
When we were filming, we had an Army liaison with us at all times. He would chime in and remind us not to use acronyms as the general public would not know what we were talking about. We all knew what could and could not be said for the safety of our soldiers and respect of families without being told. There are some specifics that, for our husbands’ safety, should not be shown and we should not say.
How has your life changed since the show has aired?
As soon as the show aired, I had a pouring in of messages and emails from other military spouses who could relate to my story. Meeting and getting to know all of these women has truly been the biggest blessing to come out of the show. I have also had doors open for me that I never would have had an opportunity to experience before the show.