NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. To all appearances, Chris and Lisa Faris seemed to have it all together. He rose through the ranks of the U.S. Special Operations Command to become its top enlisted man, command sergeant major, and his wife tended to their family and many others on his long deployments.
But the true picture wasn't so pretty. Their marriage nearly dissolved. Then, three years ago, they decided to do whatever it took to make their marriage work. Now they're on tour to speak openly about painful details and difficult lessons with troops and their spouses across the country. If you're married and in uniform, what have you learned after a decade of war? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the harsh reality of aid work in Haiti. But first, Chris and Lisa Faris join us from our member station WUSF in Tampa. And it's very good of you to be with us today.
COMMAND SERGEANT MAJOR CHRIS FARIS: Thank you, Neal. It's a real pleasure to join you this afternoon.
LISA FARIS: Thank you for having us, Neal.
CONAN: And I know this can't be easy, to talk about details of your marriage I know in front of troops, who at least have similar experiences, but on the radio, and we really thank you for coming in. Lisa, why did you decide to tell this story?
FARIS: Well, I struggled with trying to work things out at home, and I figured there must be other people out there doing the same. So I didn't want them to feel alone because at times I did, and I didn't want them to experience that.
CONAN: Chris Faris, you must have talked to so many other people in similar situations.
FARIS: Yeah, absolutely, Neal, and that was one of the motivators, when Lisa and I started getting our marriage back on track. Our experiences were so similar. And exactly like Lisa said, you know, you'd always get the reaction of: Wow, really? You too. And that's when we began to realize that we weren't alone and decided to do what we're doing, to let them know.
CONAN: But Lisa, you must have, when things were not so good, had the experience of speaking with other spouses about - who were going through difficult periods of their own.
FARIS: It was close friends, intimate friends that you shared the secrets with, but I found that it was usually doing something specific, a time when the husbands were home. And when they went away, we just had life as usual. So you kind of wanted to separate the two because you wanted to move on and make things as normal as you could with your family at home.
CONAN: So normal was when he was away.
FARIS: Yes, that was the normal, unfortunately.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And I have to ask you, Sergeant Faris, how much did the experience of combat play in this?
FARIS: Well, Neal, I think that's one of the things, from the USA Today article and whatnot that Lisa and I would like to set the record straight on. You know, while my experiences definitely involve combat, the things that we see in our marriage that were wrong, it really applies to everyone in the military. It's a result of, you know, 10 years of war, having your next deployment always looming out in front of you, and you know, this isn't about PTS or any of that.
This is more about that cycle of deploying, and then you come home, and that next deployment is looming on the horizon, whether, you know, it was soon or a year later - it prevents you from wanting to really connect, as the service member, back with the family because of that looming separation.
CONAN: And whether that next deployment was to Kuwait, behind the lines, or to Kandahar.
FARIS: Yeah, absolutely. I have a saying that I tell all of the service members: Never judge your worth by your proximity to the front lines because everybody out there on the front lines that does engage in combat are absolutely dependent upon all of that behind the scene to get us there. And separation is separation is separation.
CONAN: Lisa Faris, though, we did read in that USA Today article that you saw a difference in him after he came back.
FARIS: Yeah, he seemed to lose the warmth and the family connection that he had prior to the war. He found - I found him separating himself from us, kind of putting up walls to either protect himself or just, you know, in a prepared state of mind constantly ready to go to the next mission. So it became more and more so as the years passed, and unfortunately the barrier between us grew farther and farther apart. So it was a struggle.
CONAN: And it was hard to talk about.
FARIS: Very hard to talk about. You actually get to the point where you don't talk about it. You talk about the weather. You talk about the kids and soccer games, but you're not talking about the true issues, and that's where the breakdown is.
CONAN: And Sergeant Faris, not talking about it, you want to put it out of your mind.
FARIS: Yeah, you know, Neal, the way we couch it in our talks is this isn't the elephant in the room that everybody ignores. This is the elephant in the room that everybody can see and smell and you just walk around it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Elephants tend to leave little problems behind as well.
CONAN: I have to ask, not to make an association with little problems - you have children as well.
FARIS: Yes, we have two daughters.
CONAN: And this strain had to have an effect on them too.
FARIS: Yes, it did, it did.
CONAN: How did that manifest itself?
FARIS: They've struggled. They couldn't understand why dad didn't want to do the things that they wanted to do at times. They wanted to know why he separated himself, why he didn't get involved with their everyday lives. And they were girls. There was a little bit of a struggle with that anyway, being a guy. They stopped being tomboys a while back.
But they just wanted a normal life, and unfortunately the normal life they had was mom, and so when he'd come home, they just went on with their life, and he was - he was there, but he wasn't really there. He just went through the motions at times.
CONAN: And to some degree, did your rank, command sergeant major, did that have an effect? You have to put up a front, don't you?
FARIS: Yeah. Neal, that's one of the things that Lisa and I talk about. You know, to all external appearances, whenever we were at official occasions and whatnot, people would tell us, God, I wish my marriage was like yours, you seem so strong, and this, that and the other. And then we'd get in the car and wouldn't say a word to each other the whole way home and be worn out from having to put on the hypocritical face.
CONAN: And how bad did the separation get, Lisa?
FARIS: The separation was fine. It was when he was home that was the problem.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: So even when he was home, though, was there an extent to where you were just more roommates than married?
FARIS: I actually did talk to him. I told him that the best thing for us was to, you know, just be roommates. I don't think I said it to the point where I meant it, but he took it that way and took it as an agreement between us when all I was trying to do was make the light bulb come on and make him realize how distant we had become.
CONAN: And again, reading from the USA Today article, Chris Faris, there was a moment really when you nearly snapped.
FARIS: Yeah, you know, obviously not put my family in any physical danger or anything, but you know, my perspective of the world was backwards. Men tend to compartmentalize, and because of the war and everything that was going on and the responsibilities of my positions, I had put my family into a compartment, and it was a very small compartment in my head.
And like anything that's put into something that has boundaries, if you step across those boundaries, you know, that's when you get irritated. And, you know, I was just listening to them having, you know, normal conversation about the day, and I just kept thinking, God, how oblivious they are to what's really going on in the world. Don't they know that there are people out on target right now putting their lives in danger and this, that and the other?
And so after I had my epiphany, that's when I realized what I'd been doing for all those years, was just looking through the wrong lens and had the wrong premise of my family's behavior.
CONAN: The epiphany, what was that?
FARIS: That was my youngest daughter asking me if I knew how old she was the last time I'd been home for one of her birthdays, which is, you know, on December 27. So she's that double-present kid there at Christmas. And I had to look at her, and I said no, I don't know how old you're going to be. I know you're going to turn 18. And she looked at me and said, well, I was 10.
And that was pretty hard to take to realize what all I'd missed between 10 and the ages of 18.
CONAN: We're talking with Command Sergeant Major Chris Faris and his wife, Lisa Faris, about their experiences in their marriage, experiences they're now sharing with soldiers around the country and their spouses. If this is your story, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And let's begin with Mark, and Mark's on the line with us from Orlando.
MARK: Hi. Just as I was listening to this, it struck me how similar it was. I've been in the Army for seven years in various components, and after my second deployment, my wife was ready to leave me because I was in the same mindset. I was a soldier 24/7, and I wasn't thinking about her needs, you know, as my wife and, you know, how hard it was when I was leaving her, how much she was doing for me.
And we hit the same point. She said either let's fix it or, you know, let's end it. And so we - it was hard to do. It was hard to change from being, you know, like you said, always looking towards that next deployment and always looking, you know, when is the next time I'm leaving for three months, or when is the next time I have to go train and start thinking about, well, how can I spend - make that time when I'm home better.
And that was kind of the changing point for me, is when I stopped looking for - stopped caring too much about when I was leaving and started worrying more about when I was coming home.
CONAN: And you worked on it, and what was effective?
MARK: For me it was just - I guess really like listening to my wife when she would, you know, tell me about things, when she would talk to me about what she wanted to do instead of just paying lip service to her, going yeah, sure, that sounds great, because in my head I was thinking, well, I'm not going to be here for that. When you're doing whatever, I'm going to be deployed again, and, you know, really listening to it and thinking about how that's going to change her and how that's going to change our relationship as a whole.
CONAN: Lisa Faris, you're obviously there in a studio in Tampa, I'm here in Washington - did a smile cross your lips when he said listening to her?
FARIS: Exactly. He actually smiled at me back because it was such a typical conversation between the two of us, and it's exactly right, the exact measures that need to be taken in re-establishing that communication piece between two people.
CONAN: Mark, how's it going?
MARK: Things have been going much better now since I have gotten off active duty. My wife and I have actually had a son, and I think we're better now than we were. Well, I know we're better than we were. So it's - we did a complete 180, and, you know, I couldn't be happier with it.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, glad to hear it.
MARK: Thank you.
CONAN: Lisa Faris and Command Sergeant Major Chris Faris are with us, they're traveling the country together to talk with Special Forces troops about the hard lessons they've learned about marriage in the military. If you're married and in uniform, what have you learned after a decade of war? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with members of the military about the strains of war on marriage. If you're married and in uniform, what have you learned after a decade of war? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Command Sergeant Major Chris Faris and Lisa Faris, husband and wife. They once described their relationship as an example of how not to make a marriage work. These days they take the lessons they've learned over 22 years and share them with groups of married Special Operations soldiers on bases around the country. And Sergeant Faris, what kind of reactions do you get?
FARIS: The words of encouragement have just been overwhelming and humbling. You know, we have a lot of people that will stand up both during the sessions as well as in the sidebars afterwards and say wow, thank you so much, this is exactly what's going on. You've given me something to think about.
Lisa and I do this multiple times in a day, and perhaps the service member will be there without their spouse, and I'm going to bring her tonight. She's got to hear this, too. You know, you've really helped us. So we definitely feel like we're having a positive effect, Neal.
CONAN: Lisa, it sounds like hard work.
FARIS: It's hard work, but it's fun, and it's getting out there and meeting people and everything that comes along with that. I think my favorite story, after one of the meetings that we had, was the gentleman that came up to us and said, you know, I really thought my marriage was messed up until I heard about yours.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FARIS: So you get positive and negative. So it's wonderful. It's wonderful to hear.
CONAN: And you said there are different kinds of sessions, there are groups and then breakouts?
FARIS: Well, our talk takes about two hours, Neal, and we try to do at least two on, you know, what Lisa hates, the Chris and Lisa show. We try to do one in the morning because, you know, the families have two different schedules. You'll have the spouses that can drop the kids off and be available around 10 in the morning, locally, wherever we're at, and then those that can't be available until that evening.
So we try to do at least those two because we definitely want the spouses to be able to come and hear this, as well. And generally at a location where we're at, we're there for several days. So they have the opportunity to hit it throughout the week.
CONAN: Here's an email question from Jack(ph) in Muncie, Indiana: Does anyone ever consider leaving the service to solve this problem. Lisa Faris?
FARIS: I think a lot of folks do consider it, but unfortunately that's their livelihood. That's what they know. I think all the females or the spouses out there that I've talked to don't really want them to leave the service. They know that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing. They just want to have the same focus that they have at work at home in their family situation.
CONAN: Which can be difficult. The Army is a special career.
FARIS: Well, these are special guys. They always look at the first, second, third order of effect of things at work, and, you know, sometimes they just need to step back and do the same thing at home and realize how their actions at home affect their future with their families.
CONAN: Let's go to Ann(ph), Ann's on the line with us from Raleigh in North Carolina.
ANN: Hi, I agree with Lisa. It's awful, but it's easier when they're gone than when they're home because when they're home, everybody has to readjust. And they're used to being in charge of pretty much everything. And at home, they can't be. They're not there. The military wants you to be two women. They want you to be the one who takes care of everything while they're gone so they don't have to worry about anything. And then they want you to sort of step back into the shadows when they come home, and you just can't be two people.
ANN: I'm sorry?
CONAN: I was asking Lisa for a comment.
FARIS: You're absolutely right. I think that was the hardest adjustment for us was just having to deal with the fact that we could be a team again. I mean, letting that go was almost impossible for a while. When he came back and had his epiphany and decided that he wanted to work on the relationship, letting him back in and letting him be a part of the process was, you know, it was re-establishing that trust that he still trusted you to be effective and be the woman that you were supposed to be or we thought we needed to be all by ourselves.
But allowing some of the balls to be juggled in his hands instead of just mine when he was home and to reintegrate himself back into our family again.
CONAN: You talked about how he changed. You had changed, too, because you had to take control of the family. You were doing everything, making all the decisions when he was gone.
FARIS: Just like the caller, I was independent of him, and my life revolved around myself and my children and my career and the FRGs and doing all of the responsibilities that came along with supporting his career. And he was just something else to do when he came home, unfortunately, and just one more thing to put on that plate that was already way too full.
CONAN: Ann, thanks very much for the call. How's it going?
ANN: Well, we're still working it out. He came back from the Middle East last fall, but we haven't actually lived in the same house almost four years. And he comes home on weekends right now. So we're still trying to figure out who's doing what.
CONAN: So it's a work in progress.
ANN: It always is.
CONAN: I think you're right about that. All right, thanks very much for the call. Good luck, Ann.
ANN: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email, this from Crystal(ph) in Carbondale, Colorado: I have a good friend who's in one branch of the military, a spouse in another. They have a very tough relationship. Do your guests have any suggestions as to what I can do as a friend to be supportive?
FARIS: I will tell you absolutely do not, you know, dual military marriages are just even more complicated than the single military because you don't have a lot of say in your assignments or this, that and the other, and you're absolutely separated and pulled and tugged by both of your careers all the time. And neither one of us have experience in that, and I'm sorry, I don't have anything. I don't know if Lisa does.
FARIS: We hear a lot of it, and a lot of people talk to us about it, but, you know, I just shake my head and respect that as one more issue that we're having to cope with and that we really need to address. But we don't have any answers for that or suggestions.
CONAN: Let's go to Lydia(ph), Lydia with us from Grattan in Connecticut.
LYDIA: Hi, thanks for taking my call. My husband is an active-duty submariner, and one of the things that I'm so grateful that you're having this show is a lot of people don't understand what it means to be a military wife. And with the submarine force, we don't know when our husbands are leaving. We get 24-hour notice, if we're lucky, when they're leaving, and sometimes less than that.
And so it's really hard when people ask you do you know where you husband is, or how long is your husband away for. We can't talk about that. You know, a lot of us have Facebook accounts. We can't post anything on Facebook. If you post something on Facebook, it can lead to losing the privilege of getting information on the boats' whereabouts for all of the wives, and that's a really stressful thing when you can't talk to your friends or your family about your husband's schedule or where he is or when he's coming home. And I think that that's something that isn't understood.
CONAN: Lisa Faris, I'm not sure that the parallel is exact, but there had to have been similar strictures on your knowledge about where Chris was.
FARIS: Absolutely. I think the thing that helped me the most, and I think we've lost this because of the way the war has worked, is those relationships that you build back while the guys are forward, that I think we stopped communicating and getting to know the other ladies that are in similar situations and getting that bond to help you through it.
You can't talk with outsiders about some of the missions and things that they're doing, but having that support system in the rear, where you can talk to people that are actually going through the same thing is so important. And you don't feel as alone. And being able to say things out loud and feel like you're in a unity of trust is so important for getting through those deployments, and I think we've lost that, and we need to get back to the old way of doing things a little bit.
LYDIA: It really is, and I'm grateful you had mentioned in your - earlier, Lisa, the FRG. And I'm really grateful that you had mentioned that. The FRG is the Family Readiness Group, and it's the support for the families while their husbands or wives are away on deployment. And that's something that's really made a difference. And it helps a lot to have that community of people that are there and going through the same thing.
But I just wanted to bring it up. I don't know how it works with the other branches, but it's hard when you don't know your husband's leaving, and then he comes home and tells you, OK, I'm leaving tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LYDIA: And you can't tell anybody. It makes things very stressful, especially when you have children.
FARIS: That's right.
CONAN: Lydia, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
LYDIA: Thank you.
CONAN: This email from Jeff(ph): As I went through my training and deployment, I learned very effectively how to not feel. My marriage did not make it and it seems even as of now the only love I can feel is towards my daughter. CSM, how do you turn your feelings on and off? CSM is command sergeant major.
FARIS: Yeah, you know, in our USA Today article, we talk about how I discovered that ability to think of myself as already passed in order to deal with fear out on the battlefield. So I know exactly what he's talking about. And again, this got back to the realization through self-reflection that it's OK to have that tool in the toolbox, just don't spend all your time trying to protect it, which I think is what I was doing.
You couldn't let the family get that close to you because I frankly had a fear of would I lose that tool out on the battlefield. And I found out very quickly no, you won't lose that tool at all. You can absolutely stay connected to your family and be able to use whatever it is that you use to cope with the stresses of being in a combat environment.
CONAN: I don't mean to put words in your mouth. But, in other words, that when you were in that combat environment, that's how you felt and you didn't want to change it because it worked for you.
CONAN: And you found that there were alternatives though?
FARIS: No. I still use the same tool.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FARIS: I found the ability to put it into perspective, that rather than having that tool always out next to the toolbox, when you come home, put it back in the toolbox, close the toolbox and you can open it whenever you get back overseas.
CONAN: And Lisa Faris, how much difference does it make?
FARIS: It makes a big difference. I mean, Ashley having the opportunity to spend quality time with him instead of rushing him out the door has improved everything greatly. I mean, there's still adjustments. You're still getting used to living together. I mean, we haven't lived together in 10 years, and now we're empty nesters living in a big house all by ourselves. And I wake up some days going, gosh, I wish he could deploy because he's been home every day, and I'm not used to that. So be careful what you wish for, but it's the quality of time that's wonderful. And we're taking advantage of that, and it's a great benefit.
CONAN: And now you're on the road together. That must be a little unusual.
FARIS: It's fun. It really is. We actually - it's not as fun as I thought it would be, with the tired department. I mean, I used to think he had this extravagant life coming and going, constantly doing things. But when you've been on the road for 10 days and you're home for three days and have to get ready to go for another 10 days, it's not as exciting as it appears at times. But I am enjoying meeting the people and spending the time with him.
FARIS: Yeah, Neal. Now when she looks at me and says, when are you leaving on your next trip, I say to her, well, we - we leave Sunday.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Here's Dirk in New York, who emails: I have 12 years in the Army, three years deployed, 10 years married. The biggest thing I've found over the course of my career and my marriage for keeping both strong has been making time for everyone. I make it a point to spend at least one day a week focusing on each member of the family. This helps them all know how important to me they are. Scheduling. We're talking with Chris and Lisa Faris. He's Command Sergeant Major Chris Faris, the top enlisted man in the Special Operations Command, and they are now touring the country to speak with other soldiers in special operations about their marriage and about military marriages after 10 years of war. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's try Brian. Brian with us from Tampa.
BRIAN: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air.
BRIAN: Sergeant Major, I just like to thank you and Lisa for doing what you're doing, first off. And my comment is pretty simple. TRICARE, as you know, is the military HMO that serves us all. My wife and I have had some difficulties. Our - after being deployed for three years, the stress of the deployments and in-between got to be too much, and she had some substance abuse issues. And it's pretty hard taking care of your family from the other side of the world, but we were able to surround her and love her and get her to a great place and get her better.
But my question to you, Sergeant Major, is with TRICARE, do you happen to know if there are any initiatives out there for them to improve some of their mental health services, especially for spouses?
FARIS: You know, Secretary Woodson was at the defense resiliency conference earlier this year, and this is a topic the Department of Defense is looking at. And quite frankly, this is one of the reasons why Lisa and I are also telling our story. Both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have a lot of programs out there for PTS as well as traumatic brain injury and whatnot, and rightfully so. And we're trying to be heard that after 10 years of war, we need to relook just the day-in and day-out marital relationships.
The reintegration briefs that we get now are the same that we got at the beginning of the war, but things have evolved. As we outlined in our story, there's not a great deal of access to mental health providers on local economies in a lot of places. And I think we could do more within the Department of Defense to get more health providers for the families. So I know that it's being discussed. I know that it's being looked at as the department reviews all of its family care programs.
BRIAN: Well, thank you, Sergeant Major.
CONAN: And, Brian, good luck.
BRIAN: Appreciate it.
CONAN: Here's an email from a woman who's asked us to refer to her as an Air Force technical sergeant in Florida. It's not just marriages that are affected. For many female military members, our potential mates are often limited to our male counterparts. Most civilian men can't handle the idea of their women being around men all the time going TDY, on temporary duty assignments with men all the time, occupying very traditionally masculine careers. There are many of us who begin to build a life with what starts out as a wonderful man after the vicious cycle of multiple deployments per person.
We end somehow dating a stranger, and the relationship falls apart. Some of us don't even manage to get to the altar, yet our sacrifices and stresses aren't acknowledged or assisted. If you're not married, you're not worth helping. Hooray for the family readiness group center. Where's the non-dorm living single readiness center? I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to get married unless I choose to leave the service or settle for a man that I wouldn't have anything in common with.
Let's see if we get one more caller in. Let's go to Jeffrey. Jeffrey with us from Cary, North Carolina.
JEFFREY: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Sergeant Major and Mrs. Faris, thank you for what you're doing. Just a comment as a 12-year Army member and 14-year husband. I just had a comment about the things that work for my wife and I with multiple deployments has been just the communication. We've found that we communicate better and more while deployed than while I'm home, just being able to keep each other informed of what's going on, decisions to be made and making an effort to stay part of the decision process for the things going on at home even if I'm not here. And just found that that has helped us stay closer even when we're miles apart.
CONAN: So Skype really helps.
JEFFREY: Skype, you know, there are so many things out there. Communication, I joke about, you know, when you read stories of wars gone by where a letter was a sent three months before it was received, you know, and the reply took just as long to get back, you know, to the soldier in the trenches, you know, so six months later you get an answer to what you sent. Those days are so long gone, and communication is so much better now than what has ever been that the only excuse for separation during a deployment is lack of effort.
CONAN: And no excuse for that. No excuse.
CONAN: Jeffrey, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.
JEFFREY: Thank you. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: And Sergeant Major, where are you off to next?
FARIS: Lisa and I will be heading back to North Carolina to go visit our Marines next week.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for being with us today on the program and good luck to you.
FARIS: Thank you very much, Neal. It's been a real pleasure.
FARIS: Thank you for having us.
CONAN: Command Sergeant Major Chris Faris and his wife, Lisa Faris, with us from member station WUSF in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.