The XX Factor

As Husband Faces Murder Charges, Military Wives Rally Around Karilyn Bales

Karilyn Bales, the wife of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, appeared on the Today Show this morning in her first public interview since learning that her husband allegedly killed 17 Afgan civilians earlier this month. When questioned about the violence, she said that she could not believe that Robert was capable of the first-degree murder charges he faces: “…this is not him. It’s not him.”

Karilyn’s shock is heart-wrenching to watch. After all, this Army family had weathered Robert Bales’ four deployments – including the final tour he thought he wouldn’t have to take – only to learn that their husband and father was being accused of shooting innocent civilians. Karilyn and her kids have been moved to nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, away from the media and potential threats to the family, needing protection even though they are not responsible for the killings. But as military families quickly find out, even though it may be your loved one who is in the service, his or her work-life can easily spill over into your home.

I can’t imagine what Karilyn is going through, still loving and believing in her husband and not being able to ask him the questions that must be running through her mind about these incomprehensible murders. But at least she has the support of her friends. As a Daily Beast post last week highlighted, Karilyn’s fellow military wives are reaching out on blogs and social networks in a show of solidarity, because in their deepest nightmares, they know that such a tragedy could easily happen to them.

As a new military wife myself, I’ve never had to deal with a disaster at all similar to what Karilyn Bales is going through. My Navy submarine husband has not deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. But I’ve known the support of the military community all the same.

When your husband’s gone, when you’re perhaps newly stationed in an unfamiliar area, and when the only people who truly know what you’re feeling are fellow military spouses, they are the ones you turn to. While cattiness and gossip do crop up among women who are feeling the anxiety caused by separation from their spouses, what I’ve seen from military wives is support of each other when children are born, illness strikes, or last-minute babysitters are needed. That military support network tightens all the more during deployment and especially when disaster strikes like it has with the Bales family, whether love comes in the form of bringing over food or taking to the blogosphere to defend Karilyn as many military wives have.

The reaction is understandable—among the military community there is a lonely sense that civilians just don’t “get it.” As military wife Heather Sweeney wrote in a guest column for the New York Times last summer, reactions from outsiders range from the condescending to the borderline hostile:

Military life, with all of its inherent complications, isn’t easy to comprehend, but sadly, I’m not certain the general public wants to understand it. I’ve seen the apathy in the eyes of women who brush me off with a quick, “I could never live like that” before changing the subject. And I’ve read the not-so-subtle cynicism in the comments of blog readers who wish we would all stop complaining because, in their eyes, we knew what we were getting into when we married a service member during wartime.

A military outsider might say Karilyn Bales knew what her husband was facing when he enlisted after Sept. 11. But did she know her husband would deploy four times in a decade, be inured twice, potentially deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, and then commit these massacres? Who could know or prepare themselves for any of that? Now that Karilyn Bales is living through every military spouse’s worst fears, the community is coming together, not to excuse the massacre of innocent Afghan civilians, but to show that they’ve got her back.