Wives Left Behind


By Sherri Williams
News21 / Syracuse University

Rayna Cawston has been through a war deployment. She understands the fear, loneliness and anxiety of having a husband in a combat zone.

When Rayna, 25, was afraid to sleep alone at night she had her girls — Mylia, 7, and Antya, 22 months — sleep with her. Scary noises Rayna heard at night prompted her to buy two intimidating dogs for an added sense of security. As Rayna’s loneliness lingered and her sadness swelled she started to take antidepressants, and had her family rally around her to support her.

Rayna came up with a solution to every challenge she experienced while her husband Justin Cawston, 25, was in Iraq with the Army National Guard for 11 months.

Justin returned from Iraq to the family’s home in Coulee Dam, Wash., in March and has been there for five months. But the trauma of separation is not over: Now he’s heading to Afghanistan to serve in the infantry in September, leaving Rayna to craft yet another survival strategy. The backdrop this time: Sixty U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in June, one of the highest monthly American death rates since the start of the war.

While U.S. soldiers toil on battlefields, their spouses become the home-base commanders who carry the families’ load. Wives lean on relatives, especially their mothers, to keep their families and their feelings intact. Rayna’s support system is her family on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state.

When Justin told Rayna he would have another tour in the Middle East she said she “blocked it out.” The thought of Justin being in a war zone again was too much to contemplate. Many other wives, though, are going through the same thing. Justin is among the more than 704,000 troops deployed more than once during the current conflicts, according to Defense Department data.

“I kind of know what to expect,” Rayna says of her second separation from her husband. Still, she adds, “When he told me he would be going again I just felt really sad. I worry about him not coming back and what can happen there.”

Losing Justin would mean losing her husband, the father of her children and her best friend. The couple has been together for five years; they married in 2008. They’ve known one another since elementary school. They both grew up on the reservation where they now live.

“I missed not being able to touch him, hug him, just talk to him,” she says of Justin’s first deployment. “I got to talk to him on the phone and that would be good at the time. We are like really good friends. He’s my best friend. I can talk to him about anything.”


Communicating across the globe during their first separation tested their relationship, Justin says.

His superiors had briefed Justin and others about the strain an overseas tour can have on a relationship, but he didn’t believe it until he got there and things got rocky with his wife. Petty conversations sometimes escalated into arguments. They considered splitting up, he said.

But as time passed, contact between the Cawstons slowly improved while he was away.

“Our communication was way better,” Rayna says. “We had to talk more about things and we had to say when we felt them. We couldn’t wait until the next time because we didn’t know when the next time could be.”

Seeing her friends argue over silly issues with their boyfriends and husbands helped Rayna appreciate Justin more.

“When he got back I’d think, ‘I’m not going to get mad at this, I’m not going to get mad about that, because he’s home and that’s more important than whatever little argument we’d have’,” she said.

Rayna and the girls would stay at home by the phone, especially on weekends, to wait for Justin’s weekly calls. They arranged virtual family reunions through Skype. The girls had breakfast in front of a computer screen and dad watched them and talked with them just as he would if he was home.

“It’s like he got to watch them grow seeing them through the computer,” Rayna says.

However, there was still nothing like having him at home.

And when he returned he was different, firmer with the girls.

He was “more strict about stuff,” Rayna says. “When he was there he was told what to do and when to do it.”

After being immersed in a high-stress combat zone for several months, adjusting to being back home seemed impossible, Justin says. “You go over there, you get used to it. You come back and you don’t feel normal.”

Justin says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and feels like he has it “a little bit. … I think it will pass on its own.”

But Rayna thinks Justin should see a counselor. “He can only talk to me about so much.”

He talks to a friend who lives nearby who was deployed with him.

After a solider has been to war, PTSD can eventually affect the entire family, said Danna Hughes, founder of Vietnam Veterans Wives in Republic, Wash.

"She becomes like him. The children become like him. It's a vicious cycle,” said Hughes, whose husband was a Vietnam veteran with PTSD. “The only way it can be helped is with good counseling."

Now, Rayna’s family will again be her circle of support during Justin’s re-deployment, just as the first time. Then, from her mother and sisters to Justin’s father and 9-year-old brother, the entire family embraced Rayna and her girls.

She sometimes drove about two hours to Spokane to visit her sister, who would take care of Rayna’s girls in the morning so she could sleep longer

“It was nice to be around family,” Rayna says. “It was like a refresher. It was like, ‘OK, I can keep going again.’ ”

But it was Rayna’s mother’s love that nurtured her and her daughters most through the dreary days of Justin’s deployment, Rayna says. They went on walks together, went to the park and sometimes just simply to the familiar and comforting setting of her mother’s home.

“Some nights I just didn’t want to cook. I didn’t want to do anything. We would go up to my mom’s and she would cook dinner and give Mylia a bath,” Rayna says “We spent a lot of time with my mom.”

During this next deployment, Rayna — who works in accounting on the reservation — is considering taking online college courses to keep her mind off of Justin’s absence.


Amber Hollenbeck is a U.S. Air Force wife who also lives in Washington state, on the Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane. She has relatives who drive nearly four hours to help her care for her three small children while her husband is in Iraq.

Amber’s husband will return from war just as Rayna’s husband will head back to it.

Amber’s husband, Josh Hollenbeck, is an air traffic controller. Amber doesn’t have her mother to comfort her while her husband is away; Amber’s mother died almost nine years ago.

But Amber’s mother-in-law, Daralyn Hollenbeck, has stepped up while Josh is away.

“I do lean on her because I don’t have my mom anymore,” says Amber, 27, as tears flood her eyes. “She’s great. She’s really stepped up like I’m her daughter. …I don’t know if I could do it without her.”

Twice a month Daralyn and her husband Greg, 52, drive from their home in Oroville, Wash., to Fairchild to visit Amber and her children Kaden, 7, Easton, 3, and Brooke, 21 months, live.

Daralyn, 51, feeds the children, gives them baths and puts them to bed as Amber runs errands or simply has some time alone.

Sometimes Daralyn makes the trips alone without her husband when he has to work because she believes it’s important to “pour love on” her grandchildren while they have one less parent at home.

During Daralyn’s trips the children put their focus on their grandmother, “which is fine for me,” Amber says, “because I get my well-needed break.”

Even when Daralyn and her husband are in their home almost 200 miles away they read their grandchildren bedtime stories at night over the phone.

Amber also has soothing late-night conversations with Daralyn that only another woman can understand.

“There are some things like going to bed at night, it helps to have a mom,” Amber says. “I don’t like going to bed at night because I’m alone. Just having someone to talk to at night, I miss that.”

Josh knows that the strain of handling all the household responsibilities are wearing on his wife. Sometimes he can hear it in her voice.

“In the last month or so she was telling me that she was really hitting a wall and it got a lot harder,” Josh said in a telephone interview from Balad, Iraq. “That made it tougher on me a little bit just knowing it was harder on her.”

So when he calls home Josh tries to remind his sons to listen to their mother and help her around the house.

But he is comforted by his parents’ increased presence around his wife and children.

“It really does mean a lot to me.” Josh says. “It’s a huge help. They’ve done a lot of sacrificing as well.”

But for Amber there is still no replacement for her husband, whose job was to put their children to bed every night.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be this hard with the three kids,” Amber says. “I definitely miss having someone to help me. “