Michelle Lutz’s world stopped revolving the day her husband and best friend, Chief Master Sgt. Rich Lutz, left for a deployment.
“I didn’t want him gone for six months. It’s very difficult being a single parent,” said Michelle.
The two met nearly 15 years ago when she saw Rich playing pool at a Vashon Island, Wash., club where she worked as a waitress.
“My heart went, ‘Oh my God! That’s the man I’m gonna marry!’ I knew I was in love with him,” Michelle said. “We just became best friends and were married six months after that.”
Already in the Air Force when they met, Lutz is now chief loadmaster and resource manager at the 728th Airlift Squadron, a C-17 Globemaster unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. He was used to being gone for up to three weeks at a time in his job as a flying crew member, but had never been on a deployment lasting six months.
So, when the short-notice request to fill a deployment position came up, Lutz and Michelle talked about it with sons Andrew, 18, Esme, 15, and Aric, 13. They agreed to the deployment because having a secondary source of dental insurance as well as a pay increase was something that would be beneficial to them at the time. In addition, Lutz wanted the experience he would gain being a fulltime group superintendent.
Prior to his departure, the couple attended a training event through the Air Force Reserve Command Yellow Ribbon Program, which promotes the well-being of reservists and their families by connecting them with resources before and after deployments.
Michelle picked up some information from Military OneSource and other resource advisers, not knowing how much she would really need it while her husband was gone.
In his absence, the refrigerator broke, the septic system backed up into the house, the car had issues that nearly caused a crash and Michelle had surgery. When one of the family dogs threw up all over the house, the carpet cleaner didn’t work.
Despite the many hurdles she had during the chief’s deployment, none compared to the tragedy that struck the day he left when Michelle learned that her younger brother, Carl, had taken his own life.
“I really tried to get a hold of him (her husband). I was completely spacing out,” Michelle said. “The first thing I did was call his work number. Then I called his cell phone (leaving numerous messages).”
Lutz, by then in Norfolk, Va., awaiting his next flight, had turned off his phone and gone to bed. When he finally got the messages and called her back, he asked if she wanted him to come home. Knowing that he would just have to leave again, she told him no.
“Honestly, getting to a deployment is so exhausting in itself that I didn’t want to have to go through it (twice),” Michelle said. “It’s very hard to deal with.”
“I know she was very emotional and I kind of understood that it wouldn’t be good for me to come home and then have to turn around and leave again,” Lutz said. “She was very convincing.”
Looking back on it, Michelle said she completely shut down and should have asked her husband to return.
“I went to bed and didn’t get up. It was bad. I didn’t work. I spent a week in the dark in my room. My 18-year-old had to take over. I would get up and make the kids something to eat and then go back to bed,” she said. “I made sure they were cared for, but I was not there emotionally at all. And then I got angry because he (Rich) wasn’t there.”
Michelle said she blamed her husband and was resentful and angry that he “didn’t just drop the rest of the universe and come hold me.” But, she never told him.
Lutz learned of his wife’s true feelings in late February at another Yellow Ribbon Program training weekend in Carlsbad, Calif. A relationship breakout session gave couples the opportunity to share hurts and angers and discuss how those can damage relationships.
“We’ve come as close to anyone else — with all my flying over the years and this deployment — to ending the marriage,” Lutz said. “What we learned (at the Yellow Ribbon event) was that we have to actually walk to that brink and take a good hard look at the precipice and of ourselves. When she told me she was angry with me, I felt like I was a piece of that precipice. I’m glad she shared it with me and I’m glad we faced it.”
Michelle said she was previously trying to spare her husband from having to put himself out for her but would advise others to handle it differently.
“It’s OK to be selfish for a little bit of time,” she said. “I said I didn’t want him to come home, but I needed him home. Don’t try to do it all by yourself.”
The Yellow Ribbon Program exists so reservists and their loved ones won’t have to do it alone.
“There is certainly a variety of opportunities for individuals attending the program to find out about preventative resources, obtain individual support and to learn relevant coping skills if faced with crisis,” said Frank Pavone, a Yellow Ribbon resource provider.
Representatives from Military OneSource, the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans’ centers and local Air Force Reserve behavioral health support coordinators, as well as the Air Force Reserve Command Psychological Health Advocacy Program, attend the Yellow Ribbon events and are available to provide details on the services they can provide.
Since the California Yellow Ribbon event, the Lutzes met with a counselor they found through the PHAP, which Rich Lutz said has helped his wife face some of her bottled up emotions. They advise families who have been through some type of tragedy to talk to each other.
“Talk and listen to the other person. The tendency is for both parties, when they are first deployed, to feel the need to protect the other person from what is going on,” said Michelle. “We didn’t do a good a very good job at talking.”
Before a deployment, talk about how you are going to communicate during the separation caused by military service, she advised.
“I think when you are facing a deployment, someone dying is the furthest thing from you mind,” Michelle said. “You don’t expect to have this kind of a tragedy.”