We did it.
We survived recruiting duty. We made it through recruiting duty. As we ended our time at Recruiting Station (RS) Sacramento this past Friday, I finally have some time, before the movers come on Tuesday, to reflect on my own feelings about leaving. Looking back to 2013/2014 when we first started talking about selection for one of the most dreaded billets in the Marine Corps, I could never have imagined what we were in for. Like so many families, we weighed our choices, researching schools, job prospects for me, and quality of life for the kids. Dan submitted his preferences to headquarters while still in Iraq. I went about trying not to strangle my teenagers and survive deployment. When we got the call to report to Sacramento, we were excited but also had no illusions about just how hard things would be when we got here. Looking back now, I was completely unprepared for the difficulty of independent duty–even without losing Noah.
In the 20 years of being by Dan’s side, I’ve never walked away feeling like I let people down or that all I had to give wasn’t enough. But this duty station has taught me that I can’t do it all. Cassie, the family readiness guru. Ever the volunteer. Ever the protector of spouses. Nothing humbled me faster than my first six months here and the hits just kept coming. I came in thinking, like I always do, that I was going to make our unit the most “connected” unit ever. I was going to solve the problem of isolation on recruiting by finding a way to bring people together. I called every spouse. I arranged lunches and monthly events. I visited the substations and talked to the spouses about what we could improve and where the disconnects were. And honestly, in the beginning, we did well.
We changed how and when the RS connected with families. We learned a lot about the differences in family readiness on independent duty and the operating forces. We managed to train 11 (yes, 11) family readiness volunteers–for one RS–in the first six to nine months. While this was going on, I was learning a whole lot about what NOT to say and do. As a new commander’s spouse, I made some enormous mistakes in those early months. I was overly involved where I didn’t need to be. I didn’t fully understand my obligation to support the command in a new way. And I most definitely did not understand the dynamic of being the CO’s spouse. I learned that being little Miss Helpful Cassie is not always so helpful in that context. Right about the time that I felt like I was starting to figure things out, Noah had his accident and my world just stopped.
For me, that meant stepping away from volunteering, stepping away from the “mentor” role and transitioning to straight survival mode. For months, I ate and drank my feelings. I spent hours upon hours in the bathtub in tears. I took a career break. I focused on moving us out of our house–running from the emptiness of 3,100 unneeded square feet. I spent more time on my knees in my bedroom apologizing to Noah for how I wronged him than I care to admit. I had to talk myself into getting out of bed. I had to force myself to eat something other than pizza or mac n cheese. Most days, the only energy I had was to be there for Dan and Gavin–and even that was a struggle some days.
But the families of RS Sacramento were still there. Occasionally, I’d find my mojo and offer a resource online. I’d contemplate hosting another coffee or having an event at the house, but the prospect terrified me. I couldn’t find the courage to face people in a small group setting, a place where the giant “dead kid” elephant would be sitting on my chest. It’s hard enough to be the boss’ wife when it feels like all eyes are on you at every event. Adding Noah to the mix was just too much.
Part of me felt like the spouses of Sacramento deserved the old Cassie–the overzealous champion, trying to ensure every spouse had what they needed–the advocate that I had when I was a young spouse. But I never found my way back. I felt like I was letting them down. I wanted to give more but I couldn’t do it at the expense of my own sanity or the well-being of Dan and Gavin. So, I put on a good face at the Marine Corps Ball. I focused more on one-on-one conversations, and took a different approach to connecting. I struggled immensely as new spouses arrived and called for advice about how to “handle” recruiting. Who was I to offer advice? I was drowning. And I certainly wasn’t about to tell them about Noah and make them feel awkward about having their own struggles out here in no man’s land. Everything just felt bad. But I knew I still had a responsibility to myself to pay it forward where I could.
On Friday, I watched Marine after Marine say goodbye to Dan–their mentor, their friend, their leader. I saw and felt the devotion and the camaraderie that he brings out in people. I saw community members, Gold Star families, and RS families encircle him, thank him, and mean it. Dan found a way to give them as much of himself as he could, just like I did. But he had to do it in a much more public way.
Later that night we went out to celebrate. I watched Dan play corn hole and drink beer with his recruiting peeps. I was amazed that he was still upright–still smiling. I thought about the day. I thought about the people we were leaving behind in Sacramento. I thought about all the things I wish had gone differently, how much more I wish I could have given. Then I realized that it’s silly to beat myself up over the past 30 months. We both did the best we could for our unit. And sometimes that has to be enough.
Recently, a friend told me the story of another family who, on their last day of recruiting, got in the car and started their road trip east, just like we will next week. They didn’t speak for two states–not because they were mad at each other, but because they were exhausted. Yesterday, Dan slept almost all day. I napped so hard that I drooled on my pillow. Today, we’re prepping to move between naps, of which there have been many.
It’s over. The hard part is done. We made it. I am so thankful for this experience and even more thankful for what’s ahead.