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Army Wives: The Book Versus the Television Show From the Perspective of A Real Army Wife

Army Life

In November 2002, I became an Army wife, something I never expected to be. Although I was raised an Air Force brat and have been around military culture my whole life, I never thought I’d re-enter it when I came of age. In fact, just before I met the love of my life, I was resigned to staying single. Love can strike when it’s least expected.

In any case, I wasn’t afraid of life as an Army officer’s wife, mainly because of the way I was raised. My father retired when I was a little girl, but I grew up in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where military installations are plentiful. Consequently, when I got married, I already knew something about military healthcare, shopping at the commissary, and ID cards. I didn’t know a whole lot about military protocol, but I did have some exposure to it just by watching my mother when she was still an Air Force officer’s wife.

Right now, my husband and I live on Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia and, of course, there are even more servicemembers in these parts than there are in Hampton Roads. Living on post has given me some exposure to so-called “Army life”, but I suspect it’s not the same here in the DC area as it is in areas where the military community is smaller. For example, I have yet to attend a tea party or a coffee. In fact, even though I live on an Army post, I pretty much keep to myself. I don’t even know my next door neighbors, even though their houses are about fifteen feet away on either side of mine.

When I heard that the Lifetime channel was launching a new series about Army wives, I have to admit I was pretty skeptical. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood interpretations of what life is supposedly like for military folks and their families. Most of them haven’t been too accurate. Having watched Lifetime over the years, I had low expectations for their latest series, Army Wives, even though I had heard the show was based on a book by Tanya Biank, a real live Army wife and reporter. Like me, Biank had grown up in a military family and is now married to a Lieutenant Colonel. I decided to tune in when the show debuted earlier this month.

My expectations remained low when I saw the premiere on June 3rd. The show focuses on the stories of five different Army families. Two of the Army wives are married to officers, one a Colonel’s wife and the other a Major’s wife. Two are married to enlisted soldiers. One wife is an Army officer herself, married to a civilian psychiatrist who works on the fictional post, Fort Marshall in Charleston, South Carolina. Through an unusual series of events, these five Army families are brought together. By episode three, the four civilian wives are buddies, shown drinking wine at the Colonel’s house. The lone Army husband is shown dealing with his wife’s crippling experiences with post traumatic stress disorder.

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In three episodes, the show has dealt with a spouse giving birth in a bar to twins she conceived as a surrogate mother, an officer’s wife being physically abused by her teenage son, and an enlisted wife marrying a white knight of a husband four days after meeting him. Viewers have seen the female Army officer and her husband having sex in the ladies room during an Army ball and bitchy, gossipy wives passing judgment on other wives. As an Army wife myself, I thought it was all pretty far fetched stuff until I read Biank’s book, originally titled Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives, but since retitled Army Wives:The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage. As it turns out, a lot of this stuff actually did happen, though not quite the way it’s depicted on the television show.

I was intrigued by the book that spawned this very dramatic new TV show, which I have to admit is very entertaining, so I read it last week. Tanya Biank, the author of the book Army Wives:The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage has very impressive credentials. She is a Fulbright scholar and has won many awards as a journalist. Her book is based on news stories she wrote while working as a military reporter for the Fayetteville Observer back in the summer of 2002. Fayetteville, North Carolina is the town surrounding Fort Bragg, one of the Army’s biggest and best known installations. It is at Fort Bragg where many of the Army’s most elite soldiers are trained, including the Green Berets, Delta Force, and paratroopers. The place is flush with the Army’s highest achievers, yet the city of Fayetteville doesn’t have the best reputation. As Biank writes in her book, Fayetteville is often nicknamed “Fayettenam” by those who live there. Nevertheless, Fort Bragg has put out some great Army leaders. That’s why it was so shocking that within a six week time frame back in the summer of 2002, four Fort Bragg soldiers killed their wives; two of the soldiers committed suicide; a third committed suicide in jail, and an officer’s wife was charged with murdering her husband.

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Tanya Biank’s book is mostly about the cases surrounding these killings, as well as that of an officer’s wife whose husband was killed in an accident while serving a mission in Vietnam. The book is not so much about Army wives bonding with each other as they are shown on the Lifetime series. Instead, Biank highlights the stories of people who were affected by sudden unnatural deaths owing to military service. However, in the course of reading about these people, I saw nuances of the television program. For example, one of the women showcased in Biank’s book was a surrogate mother married to a Delta Force Soldier. But the surrogacy was not a defining detail about the woman’s story as it has been so far on the TV series. Likewise, Biank writes about a woman who married her husband after only having known him for a few days. However, the woman in Biank’s book is not that much like her corresponding character on the Army Wives TV show.

As I read Army Wives:The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage, I could definitely figure out who inspired each of the characters on the TV show Army Wives. However, I doubt the show will end the same way the book does. Army Wives:The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage may have inspired the TV show by the same name, but readers should not expect this book to be a written version of the show. The book is very hard-hitting, well-written, and interesting. Although it was the show that led me to seek out this book, I enjoyed reading Army Wives:The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage and would have liked it even if I had never even heard of the TV show. As someone who is married to a soldier who is currently serving in Iraq, I was certainly interested in reading about this bizarre cluster of murders and suicides that happened within a space of weeks to Army families affected by deployments. As an Army wife myself, I am also curious about the lives of other Army wives. Although I haven’t yet personally experienced most of the drama depicted in the book and the show, I can see where it comes from.

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I was inspired to write this article because I had read some readers’ reviews that expressed disappointment that Army Wives:The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage was not like the show. I wanted to let prospective readers know that they shouldn’t expect a written version of the Lifetime series if they decide to read this book. However, those who do watch the show may gain some insight into the show’s characters if they read about the people who inspired them. Tanya Biank is a talented writer and I found her book entertaining in a way that is different than the TV show. She has an expressive writing style that allowed me to create mental images of the Fort Bragg landscape and the real people involved in the stories she presents. I find her written account a lot more believable than that depicted on the Lifetime series, even though aspects of the series were based on the book. But again, the book is based on actual events. The show is also based on real events, but with a Hollywood spin designed to keep people watching.

I like the Army Wives TV show and will probably keep watching it, at least until my husband gets home from Iraq and we pack up for our next duty station in Germany. But I want to remind fans of the show that it’s meant for entertainment purposes first and foremost. The military is made up of people from every conceivable walk of life. Those who haven’t directly experienced the military lifestyle as a servicemember or a family member should not assume that the show or the book, for that matter, is an accurate depiction of what military life is like for everyone. However, I’m willing to guess that those of us who have experienced the military in some fashion will see some grains of truth in both the book and TV versions of Army Wives and that, along with some of the more dramatic elements of the show, is what will keep me hooked for now.