While the front lines of the war in Iraq occupy our thoughts and our TV screens, another aspect of the fight is invisible. Walking down the grocery store aisles, picking up the kids from school, the spouses of soldiers try to move through the day without breaking down, knowing little about their husbands and wives except that they’re in harm’s way. “We’re kind of emotionally vulnerable,” says Kristin Henderson, a Marine chaplain’s wife and author of While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront. “If we’re just pulling it together and not crying in public, you know, we’re not going to be able to talk about it.” The book explores the things we civilians have wanted to know about the military but were afraid to ask, and gives voice to those who know what it’s like to support our troops with more than car magnets and patriotic bluster.

With nearly 140,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and 19,000 in Afghanistan, we are nowhere near the end of these conflicts. Nor are we done tallying the death toll–2,267 so far in Iraq and 256 in and around Afghanistan. And while military memoirs and embedded reportage have given us some sense of what it’s like on the front lines, we know little about those at home who wait for phone calls and e-mails, and hope not to hear a knock at the door.

While They’re at War is the product of some 100 interviews with troops, their family members and the professional caregivers who try to help them. And while the book sets aside political questions about whether the war in Iraq is right or wrong, Henderson does have a political message. Throughout most of American history, the experience of sending a loved one off to fight was almost universal. But that’s changed. “So few people know what it’s like to send someone off to war. How can they actually calculate whether a war is worth fighting? That’s what motivated me to write the book–the sense that civilians needed to know. The fact is that war requires sacrifices. And it’s hard. Wartime deployment is hard. And my goal is to make people aware of those sacrifices.”

Henderson’s husband has been deployed twice, once to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. She has her own stories of anxiety and fear. But that’s not the only thing that gives her a unique perspective. She is a journalist–the book originated from articles she wrote for The Washington Post Magazine–and she’s a Quaker. “I was very suspicious of the military before my husband went into it,” she says. “I was about as civilian as they come. When I look back at what I believed eight years ago and what I know now, I almost embody the gap between the military world and the civilian world.”

By telling the stories of individual people, Henderson aims to surpass the bumper sticker cliché and support the troops in two ways: by making military families aware of the support systems available to them and by urging the rest of us to become engaged in the political decisions that affect soldiers’ lives.

Henderson delves deep into the lives of Marissa Bootes and Beth Pratt, whose husbands are junior enlisted men in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. Both men were deployed to Iraq at about the same time. Besides that, the women have little in common: Bootes was a teenage mom from Erie, Penn., who married a mechanic; he joined the service to get them out of a trailer park in a dead-end town. Pratt was a divorcee who owned her own house in Florida, played the drums, danced and had dreams of going to law school. Then she fell in love with a South American surfer who had recently joined the Army. After he was deployed to Iraq, she became active in the anti-war movement in Fayetteville.

The lives of these women and their different ways of coping illustrate the diversity of the military community that Henderson hoped to convey. Bootes connected early on with her Family Readiness Group, which helped her cope with the pain and isolation that accompanied her husband’s deployment. Pratt, however, wasn’t aware of the support group or how it could help her. “She was really depressed,” Henderson says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but she wound up on the verge of suicide before she got some help.”

Henderson’s interviews with caregivers helped her grapple with her own experiences. “The biggest ‘a-ha’ moment for me was when I was talking to some chaplains on Fort Bragg when they started describing the symptoms of anticipatory grief,” Henderson explains. “You’re essentially grieving as if your spouse is already dead. And I was like, that’s what that was! I would find myself crying in the shower. I would find myself imaging my husband’s funeral. But if you can recognize what it is, that can help you get through it.”

Henderson steers readers through the maze of everything from payday lenders hovering around Fayetteville to the Army’s domestic violence counseling program, which she says has been remarkably successful. About 7 percent of military spouses are men, and she explores their unique problems, too. “They go through the same thing the women do, they just handle it somewhat differently,” Henderson says.

Then there is the homecoming, which presents its own problems. “Soldiers do come back changed, and their spouses are changed, too. You’ve both grown and you might come back strong or you might be damaged,” Henderson says. “It’s also true that if a marriage has problems, a deployment is just going to make it worse.” Those whose spouses come home with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems have to face a severely under-funded Veterans Administration health care system.

That gets back to the need for civilians to know more about the experiences of those in the military, Henderson says. “There are lot of different things you can do. One is simply to stay engaged and be aware of what the issues are and hold the leaders you elect accountable for the decisions they make about the military.”

Surprisingly, she urges liberals to join the service in order to restore the political balance that’s been off kilter since the Vietnam War. “That’s not something I would have understood or even agreed with before my husband went into the military,” she says. The rank-and-file enlisted troops are fairly evenly divided between Democrat, Republican and independent, though most are fairly apolitical, she says, because politics can drain the energy they need just to get through the day. Among officers, however, Republicans outnumber Democrats eight to one, thanks to a trend that that started 30 years ago when ROTC programs began to get kicked off many liberal college campuses.

“I think it’s unfortunate just from a democratic standpoint that educated liberals, who would be the ones who would go into the officer corp, have turned their backs on the military to the degree that they have,” she says. “A big organization reflects the sum of its parts, and if all the officers are conservative, the advice they give our elected leaders is going to reflect that.”

An active member of the American Friends Service Committee, Henderson abhors violence. That’s why she’d like to see more veterans among the nation’s political leadership. Historically, the fewer the number of veterans among the political leadership, the more likely we’ve been to go to war. “So in a way, military service is a kind of inoculation against being too ready to resort to violence.

“It’s not the military that sends us to war.”

Kristin Henderson will read from her book at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. Call 828-1588 for details.