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With her husband deployed in Afghanistan, this woman is opening a play in Anchorage to give voice to military spouses

The fourth time her husband deployed, about 12 years into their marriage, Amy Uptgraft started to lose it.

By then, they'd already moved seven times. Over three deployments, they'd spent more than two years apart. They had four children. A year earlier, her husband, Jamie, met the youngest, Wynnie, for the first time in an airplane hangar when he came home from Afghanistan. She was 6 months old.

Now it was 2012, the Uptgrafts were in Kentucky and they'd just bought their first house. Jamie was leaving for Afghanistan again. This time for nine months.

"He said goodbye and then he caught a ride," Uptgraft said in an interview in Anchorage this week, where her husband is now stationed. "On that fourth deployment, I just fell apart. I just felt like, who in their right mind can sustain this life?"

Uptgraft felt afraid. She felt alone. She felt resentful. She felt worried about losing her own identity during the relentless cycle of deployments. It seemed like everyone else handled this military life better than she did.

And in that emotional place, she began to write. Eventually she wrote a play with her former college classmate, Gregory Stieber, called "I Will Wait," about what it's like to send those you love to war. It opens Friday at the University of Alaska Anchorage and plays through Saturday, paired with a workshop where veteran and active-duty spouses can share their own stories.

Amy Uptgraft is co-playwright of the touring performance art piece “I Will Wait.”  (Bill Roth / ADN)

The play is told from the perspective of military spouses. Uptgraft hopes the play will cut through the isolation those who married into the military sometimes feel, connecting them with each other and with the larger community.

While active-duty military make up less than 1 percent of the American population, the military's presence in Alaska is larger. The state has the highest percentage of veterans and Anchorage is home to a military base where about 2,200 paratroopers left from last fall, on a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan. That included Uptgraft's husband, a battalion commander, now on his fifth deployment.

With her play, Uptgraft said she wants to show the community the full and complicated picture of life as a military spouse. Too often people only see the short, feel-good videos of military members coming home to their elated families. They don't see the challenges of separation as well as the tension that can arise when couples must reconnect after many months apart.

A 2016 family portrait of Amy Uptgraft (playwright), her husband, Lt. Col. Jamie Uptgraft, and their four children. (Photo courtesy of Amy Uptgraft)

"It's really just about giving people a broader picture of what it means to send people to war," Uptgraft said. "As family and spouses, oftentimes, we just kind of are like, 'We're super proud of them, we love our country and God Bless America.' All of which are true, but there's a whole lot of other things that happen."

The play, in part based on interviews Uptgraft conducted with military spouses, starts at the end of World War II and travels in time to the present. Uptgraft said she wanted to know how people felt during their spouse's deployments. Was it always this hard? She once asked a 93-year-old woman that, and the woman started to cry.

"She said, 'No one has ever asked me that before,' " Uptgraft recounted. "It's 70-plus years later and the feelings about what that's like are still there and they're still fresh."

At the Uptgrafts' home on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the family has decorated a wall dedicated to Jamie, due back this month. They've hung up letters, photographs and a clock that has the time in Afghanistan next to another clock that shows the time in Anchorage. Uptgraft calls it the "daddy deployment wall."

Before Jamie left in September, he tucked each of his children into bed and said goodbye. Uptgraft said she then went bedroom to bedroom to comfort the crying.

When her husband saw the play, she said, he told her he was most taken aback by moments like those, the moments showing the deep sadness of those left behind. She said he told her: "I think if I had to see all of that, I couldn't go."

"I often feel like the spouses, we're left to piece everything back together," Uptgraft said.

She and her husband have decided on this life together, she said, and she loves her husband and supports him. Still, it's tough when one spouse goes and one stays — stays to take care of the family and the home, and perhaps must sideline some of their own dreams.

"My husband loves the Army, he believes in what he does, he believes in his mission, he believes he's making a difference and so the play also kind of addresses: How do you deal with that?" she said.

The “daddy deployment wall” at the Uptgrafts’ home. (Photo courtesy of Amy Uptgraft)

The play also addresses the importance of friendship during deployments, coping with the death of a spouse at war and what happens when your partner returns from war and has changed. It also discusses the range of emotions military spouses feel during the wait for their loved ones to return from overseas.

After Uptgraft and Stieber wrote the play, they workshopped it in Indiana.

Then, when Uptgraft's family moved to Anchorage, the play became something bigger.

Uptgraft partnered with two of her neighbors on JBER, also military spouses, and formed a nonprofit called The Veteran's Spouse Project. One of the women involved is an expressive arts therapist, the other has a background in business and Uptgraft is a theater major.

The women hope to eventually tour the play and the workshop — a place where military spouses can discuss their emotions evoked by the play, share their stories and make art  — around the country.

Uptgraft said creating the play helped her heal. She wants to help others do the same.

"This is my tribe of people," Uptgraft said. "I wanted to take care of them."

For tickets to the Friday and Saturday showings or for more information about the project, visit iwillwaitvsp.com.

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