Lily Burana isn’t your average Army wife. A one-time anarchist punk rocker turned exotic dancer, she resided a universe away from the white picket fences of Main Street, USA. But when Burana married a military intelligence officer, she found herself thrust behind “the camo curtain,” and all at once, her comfort zone of smoky, windowless strip clubs was traded for backyard barbecues and patriotic potlucks. And when her husband was deployed to Iraq, she found her world turned upside down yet again. Plunged down a psychological rabbit hole by the grinding anxiety of life as a soldier’s spouse, the unfamiliar world of military families became her unlikely support system as the only ones who could truly understand what she was going through.
I depend on my husband as reliable and centered, and to see him become a caricature out of Apocalypse Now—it was like watching someone become possessed.
In her new book, I Love a Man in Uniform, Burana chronicles her journey from bad-girl stripper to all-American military wife, and describes the minefield of post-traumatic stress disorder that almost destroyed her marriage, showing how the long slog through war exacts a toll not only on those on the front lines, but also the loved ones left behind. She talks to The Daily Beast about the pressure to make her marriage appear perfect, the constant threat of widowhood, and the one word you should never use to describe a military wife.
Did you have trepidations about writing this book?
Rank has its privileges, and the assumption is a more experienced wife would really have the chops to tell a good story. Part of being in a military family is you’re expected to have a game face. You don’t just represent yourself, you represent the military and the country. There’s much more to life as a military spouse than waiting tearfully at home when you’re husband is deployed.
You compare being an Army wife to being a Stepford wife.
The number one way to piss off a military wife is to say the word “Stepford.” When you get in, at first it seems that way. It’s recipe swaps and cookouts, like it’s the 1950s. You think that way is all of it. You think it will stay at the Susie Homemaker level. But this is a life-and-death lifestyle, and a very diverse population. Being a military wife, it’s on a continuum with being a first lady, in that creates a long shadow, because you have this uber-wife image: a wife who volunteers and has perfect children and the most patriotic husband. The reality is a lot more complicated. You have to become each other’s extended family. In some respects, you enter a minefield. You think you know what it’s like when your husband gets deployed, but you can’t anticipate it until you get there. The reality is, this is one of the most demanding climates military families have ever faced. You have friends whose husbands who have been deployed four or five times in six years.
Your husband’s deployment caused its own form of PTSD—in you.
The technical term is secondary traumatization. If you look at major traumas—being in combat, being sexually traumatized—and then you look at your husband being deployed, it’s a lower-case trauma. Secondary trauma is real. If you love someone, you are very connected to them. Their absence is felt on every level. For me, one of the biggest challenges was just not knowing. There’s times they can’t tell you what’s going on, there’s a fair amount they won’t tell you because it would worry you, and then there’s what you do know—things you know but wish you didn’t.
You had a breakdown after your husband returned from his deployment. Did you believe you would survive it?
No. I thought I would emerge from it in a body bag. When you’re really in the full fury of PTSD, and whatever needs your attention has really come to the fore, what you need more than anything else is to get the fuck out, and that can mean walking out of your house and never coming back, going on a bender of drugs and alcohol, or becoming suicidal because your nerves are so shot. Whatever it takes to quiet that scream seems like a better alternative than continuing to suffer. We love to gut it out, to think our way through it. But you can’t think your way out with a broken brain.
While driving with you in the car, your husband had a flashback during which he thought he was back in Iraq. What was that like?
The first thing you need to know about my husband is you see him as someone very capable and utterly sane. I depend on my husband as reliable and centered, and to see him become a caricature out of Apocalypse Now—it was like watching someone become possessed. When I finally realized he was having this Hollywood flashback of the sort I didn’t think really happened, I realized there was a lot more going on under the surface than I ever would’ve have suspected. To watch him flip out was heartbreaking.
The military hasn’t always been as supportive as it should be when it comes to veterans who suffer from PTSD.
One of the challenges is the sheer number of people who have it. It’s not like setting a broken bone. It’s not a linear process you can see. It’s not a bruise or a flesh wound. The Army is very matter of fact, and I love that, but what you’re dealing with in PTSD is randomness, and randomness is not the military’s forte. Historically, the assumption is that the soldier will suffer silently and drink his ass off for the rest of his life. We’re not in that place in our culture anymore. Men want to be there for their families. Women want to feel safe. But the Army mental health care system simply has not caught up to thinking about what it means to be a happy, healthy veteran.
Now you’ve come full circle. You run Operation Bombshell, “the only burlesque class exclusively for military wives.”
It’s such a blast. The military has Family Readiness Groups, where volunteers take care of families while soldiers are gone, but there’s still so little for the wives. I got in touch with a woman who married a cadet, who’s now an officer’s wife, and I asked her to give it a whirl at Fort Hood. It was 8,000 degrees, and I taught in the roller rink. I’m trying to get the USO to take it over, so I can really travel and go overseas.
Susannah Breslin is a freelance journalist and blogger. Currently, she is at work on a novel set in the adult movie industry.