(Art by Tim Brumbeloe)
There is this melody in our hearts when someone deploys. A father, a mother, a sister, a brother, son, daughter… husband, or wife. No matter who it is, their departure leaves a hole in our hearts. This hole is something that both military children, and military spouses, experience when a family member deploys. This hole is something that stays with us, and it is not filled until that member returns home, safely.
During this time of deployment, military spouses and brats alike are stuck at home, silently pondering about their deployed family members. Where are they? Are they okay? Will they be okay?
This pressure can be deafening.
This pressure is what drags people under.
And yet, this pressure is what builds us up, too. We become stronger after each deployment, even though it feels like we become weaker. We become emboldened, empowered, and enlightened. We realize our experiences make us different, but that different is not bad… and the curse seems a little less like a curse, and a little more like a blessing.
Even though deployments are hard, the family members left at home are fighting their own wars and struggles, internally and externally. These wars can make or break a person; these wars define a person.
This fire a military spouse or brat feels for their deployed soldier is strong and powerful and keeps not only the family member going but also the soldier.
And this fire can create miraculous things.
This is exactly what happened for The Veteran’s Spouse Project founder and co-playwright Amy Uptgraft when she created the production of "I Will Wait." Uptgraft was a military spouse for 21 years, and during this time she experienced 4 deployments. Her experiences, along with the experiences of countless other military family members, helped inspire, create, and produce this amazing, awe-inspiring production of the emotions of military spouses during a deployment.
Uptgraft, like any military spouse, was experiencing the wave of emotions that come from moving to a new place, Alaska, and having to deal with deployment. Their fourth deployment. Deployments are long, arduous experiences for both the soldier and the family alike, and so dealing with a fourth deployment was a lot. As she came to face her emotions, it was recommended that she write about her experiences. Being an actor, she had, of course, decided to instead write a play. A play that snowballed from an idea into a reality.
The play "I Will Wait," follows military spouses through four different wars and deployments: “...1946 at the end of World War II and travels through “forgotten” Korea, the volatile Vietnam era, Desert Storm and ends with spouses caught in the current cycle of war and deployment” (The Veteran’s Spouse Project). I asked Uptgraft why she chose these specific time periods, and what the creative reasoning was behind this specific span of time of wars, conflicts, and deployments.
“Honestly, these are the conflicts that we still have spouses alive to tell their stories, although we are losing our WWII heroes at a rapid pace," Uptgraft said. "I personally feel a real kinship to WWII spouses, who had their lives changed on December 7th like I had mine changed on 9/11. It reminded me that while years pass and things change, things also just stay the same. The fear, the pride, the heartache, the shared community, those things don’t change.”
When the Uptgrafts entered military life, they didn’t think they’d stay in it for long. But the attack of 9/11 changed everything for them, as it did for many people, and like how Dec. 7th, Pearl Harbor, changed the lives of military spouses and soldiers alike.
If you look up “I Will Wait”, “Amy Uptgraft,” or “The Veteran’s Spouse Project,” you will see plenty of search results come up. One such result is an article called “‘I Will Wait’ Tells Stories of Generations of Military Spouses,” by Jim Garamone. In his article, he writes that “[the] play has more than 40 characters” (Garamone). I asked who these characters were (more specifically the main characters considering there were so many), and what made Uptgraft want to focus on them? What was important to their development as characters and human beings?
“The play revolves around five military spouses, each in their own scene," Uptgraft said. "Within those scenes, all five have an interaction with their military member spouse, and all but one have an interaction with a 'friend' who is there to represent the community of military spouses that support each other through deployments and the ups and downs of military life. I took pieces from all the real military spouses that we interviewed and created scenes that speak to specific challenges that we face as spouses… feelings of worth[less]ness, isolation and loneliness, anger and resentment, losing our identity within the military and our families, the war-weariness of the endless deployment cycles. I relate to different ones on different days, ironically. I’ve felt pieces of all of them over the course of my 21 years as an Army spouse.”
A sense of camaraderie can be experienced, both within the characters themselves and as a viewer or a creator. Everyone at some point experiences these sorts of emotions during a deployment. How we choose to handle them is what defines our characters.
All brilliant projects take time to put together. When I asked about the timeframe of the project and the challenges it posed, Uptgraft said, “I started to write in November 2014. We workshopped in June 2015. We did our first true production in May 2018.”
It wasn’t a short process. Great things take a while to put together, as did this project. The amazing thing, although it took a while to build, is that this theatrical production was able to remain relevant and be able to connect to the audience effectively.
Something of such a magnitude as to touch the hearts of so many must have been spectacularly spot-on and representative of the military spouse population. When I asked Uptgraft if she thought she did justice to military spouses, and if there was something she wishes she could have included, or whether she thought this was a complete and accurate reflection of the military spouse experience, she reflected on her art.
“I want to think that it does our stories justice; I pray that it does," she said. "I’m still constantly rewriting it now, six years later. The thing with a play is that it never feels truly finished. When you see different actors perform different roles, things hit you in different ways. I do feel like it is complete-ish and accurate-ish. Everyone’s story is different. For me the test is that it moves civilian audience members, that tells me that it is resonating with audiences beyond the military community and that feels very good.”
Not only does it resonate with the audience, but it grows and evolves. Normally, when a play is written and performed, that’s it, that’s the play (with very few changes). But this production evolves, with both the characters and the effect. When different people play the same part, each person’s characterization and persona of a single character is different, one person’s future-thinking, adventurous character could be another’s nostalgic, fearful character. But no matter what the persona is, each one impacts the story differently and leaves the audience with a different impact, emotion, and takeaway. This impact is what makes Uptgraft’s piece so admirable… not only does it impact military members and spouses, but also civilians as well.
Another aspect of this wonderful play was how the story was told through different aspects of theatrical production. Garamone wrote that “...the story is told with dialogue, music, and dance” (Garamone). I asked how much of an impact does the musical score has on the production, and is the emotional movement in the words of the production or the song/melody? I also asked what importance did choreography/dance play in the production. I was under the impression that what was included in the theatrical production was predominately ballet, but I also asked if there was any other dance involved.
“The play contains five original songs that were written within the eras of the show," Uptgraft said. "The opening WWII scene shows ensemble members doing the lindy and dancing to celebrate a soldier’s homecoming. There is a ballet number performed to Spartacus in another scene. I feel like music and dance goes hand in hand. This is NOT a musical. It is a play with original music. The cast doesn’t sing. The rock band performs all the music. I often refer to our lead singer as the sixth spouse in the show.”
Not only is it amazing that this production has its own, original music, but it also has ballet and lindy hop (and lindy hop is awesome!!!). The importance of this work is emphasized by the music, as her reference to the “sixth spouse” being the lead singer. The music isn’t the sole focus, but it emphasizes the meaning and effect of the piece.
Mrs. Uptgraft was in Colorado and Alaska when she met the people who helped her create the production "I Will Wait" and the creative workshop program that goes along with it ("The Veteran's Spouse Project"). I asked her what impact her duty location had on the creation of the project.
“It made a huge impact," Uptgraft said. "We did what military spouses tend to do. Our service members deployed for the year and we got to work producing this show. It was hugely cathartic to produce it during an actual deployment and made this work feel beyond relevant and important. Also, Alaska can be a hard and isolating place to live. The winters are dark and hard, but this gave us a goal and something to focus on….”
When I think of Alaska, I think of the beautiful, wintery landscape (although I’ve never been there). But it is also isolating, due to its desolate landscape. Isolation is hard for military members, who often learn to grow and feed off the energy of the military community. But even in such a remote place, Mrs. Uptgraft was able to find that community, the community that helped her create the beautiful production of "I Will Wait."
I asked her where people could view the performance.
“Like all live theater, the performance came to a crashing halt when COVID hit," Uptgraft said. "We are hoping to produce it again later this year, and again at the start of 2022. For now, you can catch a Zoom reading of the play on our Youtube channel.”
If you are interested in viewing the performance, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-hFjSPyUU4.
Trust me, you should watch it. Even though it isn't in-person, it is still an emotional experience. Even as a military kid, I feel like I can relate to a lot of the emotions that these spouses are experiencing. Make sure you have tissues on hand!
Military spouses are not the only people who experience hard emotions when their military member deploys. Military kids do, too. I asked her if she thought her production applies to military children, and if so, which character did she think military kids/teens would relate to.
“Of course! It is their story too, and honestly, I would love to see military kids have their own show that addresses the issues that they walk through specifically," Uptgraft said. "Military children are often bystanders to the stress of war. They experience all the same worry and anxiety in their own ways, and often don’t have the same outlets and tools that adults have to handle it. I truly like that my kids experienced all the same emotions that I did when their dad deployed, so in truth, they can relate to [the] whole show!”
Military kids can do so many amazing things, from starting a website (looking at you, my fellow Bloomers!) to submitting art to a blog (looking at you, Creator’s Spotlight!), to anything they put their minds to. Why not a theatrical performance? All it takes is for a motivated individual to pick up the gauntlet and lead others to a common goal, to express their emotions in a piece of art that will touch the hearts and souls of not only their community but the communities around them.
One line from the virtual read-through that really stood out and impacted me, was the line "What have I done?" ("Virtual Reading - I Will Wait"). This line didn't only stand out to me, but to Mrs. Uptgraft's husband as well. He pointed out everything that military spouses do, that they are the soldier's "lifeline" (The VSP Team). "What have I done?" is the question that so many people who have a deployed soldier ask. Our family member is fighting to save lives and make the world a better place. What have we done? The better question, the one we should be asking, is not what we have done, but what we are going to do. Just like Mrs. Uptgraft turned her and other's experiences into a play, military children can do the same. And not just plays, but arts, inventions, and any other form of expression that impact others.
For me, the memories of deployed service members returning back to their families in the crowded airports always seem to stand out, emotionally, from pictures of friends to my own experiences. We go through so much alone when our service members deploy, but it is important to remember that we are not alone. Others experience the same thing as well, and that is what brings us together.
Military kids wait too.
I Will Wait is produced by The Veteran’s Spouse Project, a non-profit. Go check out their website at: https://www.veteransspouseproject.org/.
Military Spouse Appreciation Day is May 7th. Thank you to all the military spouses out there!
Garamone, Jim. "'I Will Wait' Tells Stories of Generations of Military Spouses." U.S. Dept of Defense. 28 Aug., 2015. https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/615190/i-will-wait-tells-stories-of-generations-of-military-spouses/
"The Veteran's Spouse Project." YouTube. The Veteran's Spouse Project 4, June, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tanSZ4os5ow.
The Veteran's Spouse Project. The Veterans Spouse Project, 2020, https://www.veteransspouseproject.org/
Uptgraft, Amy. Personal Interview. 21 April 2021.
"Virtual Reading - I Will Wait." YouTube. The Veteran's Spouse Project, 4 June, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-hFjSPyUU4
The VSP Team. "Your Impact." The Veteran's Spouse Project. 2 March. https://www.veteransspouseproject.org/post/your-impact.