Is War From the Homefront Sabotaging Military Marriages? ‘Good Kill’ Says Yes.


Good Kill trailer image
Last night, I attended the D.C. premiere of the new Ethan Hawke-January Jones movie, “Good Kill,” about Air Force pilot turned drone operator, Maj. Tom Egan. If you’re interested in drones, you’ll learn a lot from this movie—but what hit home for me was how this service member’s high-stress job impacted his relationship with his wife.

As a drone pilot, Maj. Egan often kills dozens of people, watches the aftermath on the computer screen, then drives home to his wife and kids. The film explores how the emotional stress and responsibility of being a drone pilot creates a wedge between his wife and him. Mostly, he shuts down. “It’s not about the security clearance, I just don’t want to rehash it.” But when he does confide in her he admits, “I feel like a coward every day.”

Their marriage heads south fast, due to his internal struggles, alcoholism, and anger management. In one scene, they talk about how things were so much better when he was actually flying planes over Afghanistan for months at a time. “It was scarier back then, but at least we made each other laugh.”

In the Q&A following the movie, I asked Ethan Hawke and Director Andrew Niccol why they chose to depict the relationship that way. Niccol said that’s what the drone pilots he interviewed experienced. As he explained, there’s no time to decompress; they can’t compartmentalize; their family doesn’t understand what they’re dealing with on a daily basis, or how – even though they’re technically “home”—they can’t be available in the same way other non-service members are.

There’s a scene in the movie when Maj. Eagan sends a last minute text saying he can’t pick up their kids from school.

“You promised,” his wife reminded him. “And I had an appointment today.”

“Was your appointment life or death?” he asked. “Because mine was.” He had been assigned—at the last minute—to keep a group of soldiers safe by watching them through a drone camera so they could get some sleep.

That part of the movie hit me like déjà vu. I was taken back to my first year of marriage. It was Valentine’s Day and we had plans. I’d made a candlelit dinner and a handmade book chronicling our first year together. There I was in Jacksonville, North Carolina waiting for my Marine to come home and celebrate. Hours later, sometime after 10pm he came home apologizing, but there was nothing he could say. I was hurt and enraged. He begged me to understand, saying a life-or-death situation kept him at work. One of his Marines had attempted suicide in the barracks and nearly succeeded, and he was dealing with the aftermath—the hospital, the NCIS agent, the rest of his Marines. Meanwhile, I was dealing with the fact that he didn’t call, text, or come home on Valentine’s Day.

The line between the battle front and the homefront is blurred, and military life is hard on families. Let’s remember to care for all of our military families, whether that service member is deployed or at home.

As “Good Kill” shows us, we don’t know what burdens they may be carrying.

Can you relate to this movie? How do you deal with the unexpected changes in military life? 

Besa-PinchottiPosted by Besa Pinchotti, Communications Director

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  1. 3
    Becky long

    Wow, wow! I am a spouse of 20 years. My husband just retired. Um, we are having issues. I am going to counseling, but it seems to be more I understand the military, but his family doesn’t. They blame me for keeping my husband away! It is my fault he was always gone. I knew it was his job. I guess it is just hard having him home:(

  2. 4
    christi

    I dont know that many outside of the military understand, except families of firefighters and police officers. Our significants others may be home, but they may not be safe. Thier jobs are different. Our lives are different.

  3. 5
    Aundrea

    I have struggled with my husbands ptsd for 10 years. Its a constant battle. Both so hypervigilant, him with his demons, me with anticipating issues that might trigger him. Its a never ending battle, and both of us usually are on the losing end of it. I hate it..

  4. 7
    Heather

    As a spouse of an RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) pilot, I understand a lot of what is said in this article. Our lives are very different than even a typical operational flying squadron. I don’t worry about him when he flies like I did when he flew fighters, but the mental stress of RPAs is signficantly different. What my husband does everyday matters to someone, because their life is being protected and the enemy being found with his daily tasks. It’s nothing like “playing a video game”, and those that think this, have no understanding of what these men and women do everyday. I am one of the few wives that knows exactly what it is that my husband does, at least the unclassified part of it. I am so proud of what he accomplishes and I need to know that what he’s doing is worth the massive amounts of time he’s away at work. Many spouses don’t want to know anything about what they do, which I find sad. This is where the majority of the active duty member spends their time, and it’s hard to have a close marriage if you have no interest in knowing what your spouse does, learning what their victories are, and what they are struggling with. I love knowing that he protects us as a country and protects individuals on the ground on a daily basis. When my kids were young it was hard for them to understand what Daddy did, so we explained it by telling them that he helps make sure that other Daddies come home to their little boys and girls. RPA pilots and sensors are deployed “in garrison” while home, but they also deploy like anyone else. I honestly have never seen my husband so happy with his job. He knows that what he does, matters, and that makes him feel good about it. Anyone who works in this particular career field has to come to terms with what they are asked to do. Some people aren’t a good fit for this. Even those that are cut out for this will have their good days and their bad. I like to be available for my husband to talk at any time. We have had to work very hard at keeping our marriage strong and have been very intentional about making our marriage better through this lifestyle. Please be thankful and appreciative for what these men and women do, very few people thank them, and very few understand the pressures they are under.

    • 8
      Tyler

      Heather – I know there is a small chance that this might get to you, but I’ve put in a package to become an RPA Pilot. My wife however is struggling with the idea, and it’s been very difficult finding someone to help her (and me) know exactly what to expect, and how to make it work. Would you be willing to get in touch with me and my wife to give us some insights? Thanks! (facebook.com/rommel913)

  5. 9
    MelDill

    Wait, wait, wait. So your answer to “your military spouse struggles to deal with a tough job” is “the civilian spouse should just be more understanding”?? It’s not my job to deal with my husband’s job – it’s HIS job. Part of that includes coping HIMSELF with the emotional toll it takes on him. I’ve got enough to do handling myself, without handling him.

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