May 18, 2011

The untold stories of military families

Behind the Book by
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Theater writer Laura Harrington based her debut novel, Alice Bliss, on a one-woman, one-act musical she wrote that she couldn't get out of her head. Her desire to dramatize the experience of military families was due to her belief that the story of the war at home and its effect on children, families and communities was one that needed to be told—but it also resonated on a personal level. In a behind-the-book essay, Harrington explains how her family history informed her moving and memorable story of a girl's coming-of-age while her father is deployed in the Middle East.


My father was a navigator/ bombardier in WWII, flying missions into Germany from his air base just north of Paris. Both my brothers enlisted in the Air Force in 1966, at the height of the Viet Nam war, directly out of high school and college, respectively. Even though I don’t have a family member serving in the current war, my family has been deeply impacted by war.

My father suffered from what was then called battle fatigue following WWII, a time he would never talk about directly. Nor would he talk about the experiences during the war that had so devastated him. The silence surrounding my father’s war experiences has probably been the single greatest mystery and inspiration in my life. I believe that my fascination with war grows out of my need to understand these experiences and to bear witness to this silent suffering.

I think that making the war personal is important. Telling the stories of those who have a loved one deployed is important.


I chose to write about the family of a soldier in the Reserves in 2006 because in my research I learned that Reservists make up 63% of our armed forces. For the families of Reservists a sense of isolation can be especially acute. They often live in communities where few, if any, of their friends and neighbors are in the military or deployed. Not only do Reservists’ children feel that no one knows their story, they often feel that no one even knows they exist.

There are more than 1.7 million military children and teens scattered across the country. Most of us have the luxury of thinking the war is distant; these children do not. They live with this war, day in and day out; they wake up with it, they fall asleep with it; it is woven into the daily fabric of their lives. They are expected to carry on at home and at school, to pretend that they do not have a parent who is risking his or her life, that they are not consumed with worry, that their daily life is not affected by this absence.

How should this sacrifice, borne by less than 1% of our population, affect the rest of us, the lucky 99% of us? What is our responsibility? Most of us have the luxury to blithely choose to remain ignorant of the war, or simply not pay attention. We can turn the page; we can change the channel. There is decadence in that choice and, I would suggest, a sense of shame, a moral disquiet.

I think that making the war personal is important. Telling the stories of those left behind, illuminating the lives of spouses and partners and children who have a loved one deployed is important.

Stories have the unique power to open our eyes and our hearts to people and to worlds and to experiences that we would not otherwise know. I wanted to find a way to tell the story of this endless war, to shed light on these struggles, and most importantly, I wanted to hear these voices.

I hope that Alice Bliss can help us begin to see this war one child at a time, one soldier at a time, one missing father at a time.

Read an excerpt from Alice Bliss on Harrington's website.



Laura Harrington

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