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'A Very Lonely Club': How Post-9/11 Deployments Impacted Vt. National Guard Spouses, Children

Photo: An adult in a white shirt holding a child in a red striped t-shirt, with a brick building in the background.
Nicole Morlan, Courtesy
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Nicole Morlan poses with her son, Parker, several years after Sept. 11, 2001.

Hi, my name is Nicole Morlan. I'm from Montpelier, Vermont. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was currently a volunteer firefighter for the Woodbury Fire Department.

This story is part of VPR’s 9/11 remembrance project, featuring the voices of Vermonters reflecting on how their lives were changed by 9/11.To find the full project, go to www.vpr.org/911.

Being a firefighter, I'd been in training fires and things like that, where you hear the alarms go off, and it's frightening, even in a training setting. And I just couldn't believe that this was happening on such a large scale. And it was completely shocking.

I became pregnant with our first child a couple of years later. He was about 1 and a half, my husband then was in the Army National Guard, [and] we had been hearing things about people getting called up — that have been happening ever since 9/11 — a lot of people were being just asked to go on a volunteer basis. And because he had a really young kid, he didn't want to go voluntarily.

One weekend, my husband went to his regular, everyday Guard weekend, and he came back with news that some people who had already gone ahead to train in [Camp Shelby in Mississippi] had been turned away for medical reasons, and there were no more people on the volunteer list. So they just took people from his unit, and he was one of them.

It was a really big shock, mostly because we were more or less told that it wasn't gonna happen. And I think the both of us were just looking at this little toddler, who had no idea what was about to happen.

"There were no more people on the volunteer list. So they just took people from his unit, and he was one of them. It was a really big shock, mostly because we were more or less told that it wasn't gonna happen."
Nicole Morlan

Right up to when we went to the airport, Parker was very happy and cheerful. He loved being held by his Dada. And you know, being at the airport was exciting, and things like that. He just cheerfully waved goodbye. Because he had no idea what was happening.

The first part of it and the last part of it was when I was really terrified about potential dangers. In the middle of the deployment, it became more routine. Like seeing somebody turn around in the driveway in the middle of the night didn't scare you quite as much, but it still scared you … or a phone call after 8 p.m. But you can't live through life thinking about that every day.

Nicole Morlan (Left) poses in a floral shirt next to her son Parker (Right) wearing a gray t-shirt.
Nicole Morlan, Courtesy
Nicole Morlan and her now-adult son, Parker.

And I was suddenly a full-time mom. My own mother had just passed away, I had been laid off from a job I absolutely loved, and now I was a single parent. And I'm so grateful for Guard spouses that — some of them I didn't even really know very well. One time, I was really struggling, and one of the Guard's spouses packed up all her kids in the car, drove an hour to my house, just to deliver a casserole … And I just burst into tears, because only we really knew what each other was going through. And it was a very lonely club.

I remember going through the days, because that's what you had to do. Then I heard the news about Chris's death, the first Guard from Task Force Saber who died, who was killed. It was devastating, because I think people still thought that it can't happen here, there's so few people coming from Vermont. But when it happened that time, and then it happened again, and again, it got worse every time, because then everybody was even in this more heightened panic.

I think one of the most powerful things about the entire deployment is that when it was finally all over, when people came home, and we were there with our signs and our flags, somebody told me, "You know, Chris's family is here too." And I was just floored that people who are still grieving so much, were there for us and happy for us, for soldiers that came home, and it just broke my heart.

"A lot of people will say, you know, it affected the soldiers a lot, but I think it also affected the spouses a lot, because we were the ones who kept looking out the window, waiting for the phone to ring."
Nicole Morlan

So my ex-husband was gone for about a year and a half, and Parker was just about to turn 3. But I don't think anything really prepares you for having somebody who's been in a war zone come back to a very quiet place like Vermont. And it was very jarring for him. And a lot of people will say, you know, "It affected the soldiers a lot," but I think it also affected the spouses a lot, because we were the ones who kept looking out the window, waiting for the phone to ring.

And even though we didn't have a reason to anymore, you're like, "What do I do now? How do I behave now?"

I did actually go to therapy after the deployment, because I was freaking out at things that I didn't think I should. As hard as it was for soldiers to talk about going into therapy, I think military spouses felt even more reluctant, because we weren't there, but we were here.

When I think about 9/11, today, 20 years later, my biggest hope is that people will be supportive and honor the people who died. Honor the families who served, not even knowing they were going to have to serve. And think of all those kids, however old they were, whether there were toddlers, or teenagers, or young adults and how it affected them.

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