Editor's Note: Today, May 6, is Military Spouse Appreciation Day.

Editor's Note: Today, May 6, is Military Spouse Appreciation Day.

A friend of mine is counting down the days until her husband's next deployment. He's been to Iraq and back three times, coming home safely, but never quite the same. None of them are — combat changes everyone.

We talked about this recently, she and I and another military spouse. As the shadows lengthened into night, we talked about what it meant to be a military spouse during the nation's longest war.

Some deployments are harder than others, but after the first one (we've all been through more than one), we learn to keep our fears from our husbands. By then we've also learned that our families don't want to know either, and our civilian friends can't comprehend, or don't really care. So it's only on nights like this, with spouses like us, that we can let down our guard.

Carrie weeps, telling us, "Something feels different about this one. I was worried for all of the others, but there's something about him going to Afghanistan that scares me to death."

She doesn't know how she's going to get through it. All she knows is that she will. She must.

Not too many nights from now, Carrie will spend her last evening of 2011 with her husband. Everything will have been done — again — all of the packing and paperwork. They will have updated and finalized plans for his funeral: whom to invite, what will be said, the music, what she will wear, and what he wants to be buried in, and where.

They will try to act as if this is normal, and in a way, it is. She will close her eyes and try to sleep for a few fitful hours, before feeling her beloved curl his uniformed arms around her, whispering, "Honey, it's time."

At oh-dark-hundred hours, she will hold herself together as she watches him board a bus or a plane. She will hold herself together on the long drive home. She will hold herself together until she gets a few feet into the house. Then she will drop to her knees and cry. She will allow herself that; and then she will hold herself, and the kids, and her job, and her husband, together for whatever the next year brings.

How well she is able to hold it together during the deployment directly determines how well the kids do, and greatly influences how well her soldier does, both while he's gone and when he comes home. Virtually every study on military kids and deployed troops and returning veterans confirms it.

My friend, Tam, lives it, working a 60-hour week, and taking care of her 70 percent disabled veteran. He was recently diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder and an array of permanent, service-related, physical injures that have rendered him incapable of finding a job, performing some basic tasks and fully participating in their household or their marriage.

While she waits for the Veteran's Affairs Department to make good on the mandate to provide support and services for caregivers of disabled veterans, she tries to figure out how to grieve for someone who isn't dead. She is committed to loving her 33-year-old veteran, and caring for him for the rest of her life, but every day her hearts breaks a little at what they've both lost. And the strain of bearing the burden of the war at home is, she says, "Aging me in dog years."

Tam didn't sign up, and neither did Carrie, but they are sacrificing for their country, and fighting battles of their own every day. So today, thank a military spouse, express your gratitude to the wife of a veteran, and then please, ask what you can do to help.

Stacy Bannerman of Medford is the author of "When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind" (Continuum Publishing, 2006). She is the founding executive director of The Sanctuary for Veterans & Families, www.sanctuaryvf.org, a 501(c)3 organization, and the wife of a two-time Iraq war veteran. Contacat her at her website, www.stacybannerman.com.