A Pennsylvania couple authored a new book documenting the lesser-talked about experiences of National Guard service.
Lt. Col. Kevin Dellicker and his wife, Susan, a high school German teacher, describe their life attached to the Air National Guard as occupying “a complicated space somewhere between military and civilian life without really feeling at home in either.” The couple wrote the book, “Twenty Percent Soldiers: Our Secret Life in the National Guard,” to give readers a glimpse into guard service in a post-9/11 era. It also sheds light on a lifestyle that means waking up in small-town America one day while having boots on the ground in Southwest Asia the next.
The Dellickers met over two decades ago while both working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At the time, Kevin served in the Army National Guard before later transitioning to become an Air Force intelligence officer. His decision to enlist at 25 years old followed a long family history of military service, he says.
“My father was a fighter pilot in Vietnam. My grandfather was a fighter pilot in World War II. My great grandfather, who I never met, was an infantry gunner in World War I, so, I think we’ve had at one point — my father figured out that we’ve had 80 years or so of service in the military for Dellicker men,” Kevin said.
He describes the experience of being an enlisted soldier before the attacks of September 11 as vastly different than being an officer in the Air National Guard post-9/11.
“Pre-9/11 the Army National Guard wasn’t going many places. We had old equipment and we weren’t really integrated into anybody’s battle plans, and although I really enjoyed the training and the people, we all had this realization that things would really need to be bad before the Army National Guard would ever get called out,” he said. “And in a way I was OK with that, you know we were just in the reserves. Today it’s really different with the reserves or the National Guard, you’re now part of the operational force it seems.”
“Twenty Percent Soldiers: Our Secret Life in the National Guard” opens with readers following Susan on the morning of September 11, 2001 — a day she knew signaled an uncertain future ahead for her family. “Soon, I had watched this terrible event unfold long enough. I knew that my life had just changed drastically. Today, I had become a wartime military wife,” Susan wrote in the book.
She adds that even though there was confusion initially as to what was happening, she grasped in those moments that life was about to change for all military families.
“I immediately thought this was going to change the whole scope of our lives, not just our family but all the guard families, the reserve families, the active-duty families. This was going to change all of our lives; this was going to mean war,” she told Reserve National Guard Magazine.
And it did. In fact, the Dellickers calculated they had spent roughly 20% of their life apart for military commitments.
“At times when he’s gone, it’s empowering. It leaves me to be in charge of the home front … I have to keep things running and on schedule and as normal as possible for our kids and for our household. Of course, it’s tough on a marriage when you’re separated — that part is a given, but we did have some problems then upon return and we pointed that out in the book. It’s not always easy to integrate back into having both of us at home again and getting back to ‘normal life,'” Susan said.
And she didn’t just have the household and couple’s children to care for, but the Dellickers were also running a new business together, Kevin says.
“So, when I disappeared, she was also responsible to keep the business afloat while I was gone, which wasn’t really what she bargained for,” Kevin said.
It is among the reasons they were prompted to write the book in the first place, with several goals in mind including:
- That other guard and reserve families know they aren’t alone,
- Help others better understand what the National Guard does, and
- Raise awareness of the family support challenges.
The latter point is especially personal for Susan who says people don’t realize how much life changes with a spouse gone.
“Everything changes from your monetary budget … we had two budgets: one for deployment and one for when Kevin was home because that was very important to our financial security. You don’t realize that you can’t talk to them when they’re gone — Kevin and I had no contact during his deployments, and you don’t have that sounding board as a parent or the sounding board as an employee or manager in a company. You don’t have that capability. That’s a huge thing that we experienced,” Susan explained.
The book switches between Susan and Kevin’s perspectives, with each author writing their portion separately until compiling the pages as one.
“Without a doubt there was definitely a therapeutic side to this. We saw that we could influence, hopefully, change in the guard and that we could potentially help other families see that they’re not alone and that the support system could perhaps be upgraded somehow or changed,” Susan said.
Kevin adds the most important part of the book for him comes in the final chapter when he shares stories of those he served with. He wants to help set expectations for new and future National Guardsmen, but also stress today’s reserve component requirement is not the same as it once was.
“I think what that (book) demonstrates is, this story that Susan and I tell about our lifelong experience of jumping back and forth between the military and civilian life might be really unique to normal people, but it’s pretty much what guard members experience all the time … it’s what you have to deal with in the modern guard and reserves. One weekend a month, two weeks a year — that’s a commercial from the 1980’s,” he said.