A Year of Absence: Six Stories of Courage, Hope, and Love

In April 2003, Jon Redmond (OE) set off for Iraq with the U.S. Army’s First Armored Division. While Jon attempted to establish order in his unruly sector of Baghdad, his wife, Jessica Redmond, began researching the other side of war: life on the homefront. Her book about the struggles of military spouses while their loved ones are at war, A Year of Absence: Six Stories of Courage, Hope, and Love, hit bookstores November 1. The Harbus sat down with Jon and Jessica to talk about the book:

Harbus (to Jessica): What is A Year of Absence about?
The book follows six Army wives from the time their husbands go to war in late April 2003 to the time they finally return, roughly 15 months later. Through tearful goodbyes, long-awaited communication from the front, and joyful yet troubled reunions, A Year of Absence captures the largely unexplored story of what life is truly like for many families of deployed soldiers – the ever-present fear of death, the pressures of single-parenthood, and the strength and comfort that come with the support of close friends – and shines a spotlight on what happens to marriages and families under severe stress.

Harbus (to Jessica): Where did the idea to write this book come from?
It took a little time. I spent the first few weeks following Jon’s absence like all the other spouses on our remote Army base in Germany-jumping for the phone every time it rang, scanning the headlines for news of attacks, and going to sleep each night wondering if I would still have a husband come morning.

In the midst of my own worry and growing isolation, I began to wonder how other spouses were coping with the deployment. How were other couples handling the strain of separation and all-too-rare communication? How were young mothers with small children dealing with sudden single-parenthood? What would the long separation mean for military marriages and families?

Every night the evening news showed awe-inspiring scenes of soldiers in Iraq – important stories – but it seemed to me that there was another side of the war that was being overlooked. I thought there might be a book in that, one that might offer some comfort to military spouses, parents, and siblings as well, as let the public know what life is really like for the families of soldiers at war.

Harbus (to Jon) What did you think when Jessica told you that she was planning to write a book about military spouses during the war?
I thought it was great! Like Jessica said, it’s a story that didn’t get much attention in the news, and it was important that it be told.

I don’t think either of us had any idea how much time and work would go into it, though. She has been working on it since early summer 2003; by mid 2005 Jessica was just about ready to be done writing. Now she is working hard on publicity and her book tour, trying to get sales up. I’m around mainly for moral support. That, and waiting for A Year of Absence to make it to Oprah so I can retire before I even have to start working.

Harbus (to Jessica): Did you write about your own story? How did you decide who to include in the book?
I did not write about my own story. Maintaining objectivity in writing is difficult in the best circumstances, but when the writer is this close to the story it becomes all but impossible. I wanted this book to be as universal a look into military families as possible, and therefore I chose a group of women who came from a wide array of backgrounds, ranging from a Mexican-American, UCLA-educated lieutenant’s wife to a German-born 22- year old with two small children, to an African-American retired soldier with a teenage daughter. Their backgrounds, political beliefs, and commitment to the army vary, but they are united in their struggle to cope with what was, for all of them, the most difficult 15 months of their lives.

Harbus (to Jessica): Is there a woman in the book that you find particularly compelling?
Each story is compelling in its own way, but the story of the lieutenant’s wife, Teresa, is one that stands out to me because of the tremendous hurdles that she overcomes. She and her husband have a hard time in the months leading up to deployment, and by the time he leaves for Iraq, Teresa is consumed with fear and resentment over their strained goodbye. She tries to drown her depression in alcohol and surrounds herself with unhealthy people whose marriages are on the brink of collapse only months into the deployment. But just when it seems that Teresa is a lost cause, a new group of women comes into her life, rescuing her from self-destruction. These women form a tight bond that sees them through unimaginable hardships, including the loss of a parent and the death of a husband.

Harbus (to Jessica): Who do you see as the main audience for A Year of Absence?
The primary audience is, of course, those with a connection to the military. I hope that this book gives voice to the experiences of so many who have waited through long months of separation and fear for a husband, parent, child, or sibling to come home from war. But I also believe that these women’s stories will resonate with a wider audience as well. This is a book about ordinary women during an extraordinary time; anyone who has ever experienced loss and separation can relate to their stories.

Harbus (to Jessica): Was it easy to find a publisher?
It started off deceptively easy. I sent the proposal to this big shot literary agent who called back within 24 hours wanting to represent the book. He told me that he was sure he could sell the proposal to a major publisher for six figures within two weeks. I hung up the phone and shouted to Jon, “Great news! I can write a check for HBS!”

Well, that fantasy was short-lived. One by one, the major publishing houses turned it down, most saying that they didn’t want to take a chance on a first-time author or – my favorite – that by the time the book came out the war would be over, soldiers would be home, and no one would care. Eventually we found a small publisher that liked the idea but, sadly, that whole “six figure” thing went right out the window.

Harbus (to Jon): Have you learned anything at HBS that you have been able to use to help Jessica with her entrepreneurial venture?
Well, these days the main effort is on marketing, and I barely made it through RC Marketing with John Gourville, so I don’t know how much I can add there, but I’m trying. Jessica’s publisher hasn’t seemed all too enthusiastic to listen to my advice so far, especially when it came to print runs. I mentioned something about forecasts, production runs, and Cost of Overage / Cost of Underage, but did not get very far. I guess I need to review my notes from LEAD last year and figure out how to align incentives better. Probably the biggest lesson from HBS was from Josh Learner in TEM-when you start an entrepreneurial venture, be ready to live off of your credit cards while you are in the bottom of the cash flow curve, waiting to “realize value.” Gotta love Citi Assist!

A Year of Absence is available online at www.amazon.com, the HBS campus bookstore and the Harvard COOP, where Jessica will be doing a book signing January 17.