It’s deployment time for many military families, and many are wondering what to expect. The good news is there is a method to the madness, and we can all learn from the experience of many military families who have developed ways to survive and even thrive during deployments. The key is knowing what to expect and leveraging the good parts of deployment – because there are some.
Experienced military wives often say that the six months before deployment is the worst phase. Spouses make the effort to enjoy their service member before the inevitable parting, but those efforts are thwarted by unpredictable work-up schedules. For instance, family dinners around large meals are fouled by the service member coming home late. It’s not his fault that another unit failed to pass their ‘quals,’ but the family feels resentful nonetheless. Promised birthday parties and soccer games are missed because of extended sea trials or war games.
“I am so sick of his coming and going that I am ready for him to leave so we can have a normal schedule,” said one spouse who asked to remain anonymous.
As deployment looms closer, some couples find that they argue more.
"The Soldier is preparing to go, so he is pulling back from the Family," said Navy Capt. Daphne Brown, a clinical psychologist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. "He has to invest in the mission." "But the spouse does it from a fear that something will happen," she said.
That fear can include a wide range of concerns, from death or injury in combat to what the strain of separation will do to the marriage.
If couples can recognize these trends, they are better prepared to monitor their emotions and prevent overreaction to the circumstances imposed on them. Rather than picking a fight, the individual can opt to go for a run or use relaxation techniques.
When Deployment Finally Comes
Admit it or not, the day of deployment is the culmination of these mixed emotions. Couples often feel deep sadness and mourning. They may also be exhausted by the anticipation and ready to move forward with the next phase. For service members, deployment can be a chance to test their highly-trained skills and bond with their unit. For spouses, they recoup their home and their schedule.
But not until after a good cry. When asked, many military wives on CinCHouse.com acknowledged that they wrote off the first two or three days after deployment and succumbed to sobbing. Grieving is a normal part of the process, and for some it lasts longer than others.
“For some reason I just couldn't get my act together. I was depressed and moped and, if I didn't have my son, I probably wouldn't have gotten out of bed many times,” said “Scooberooni”. “I remember one day turning into one of ‘those moms.’ I was in Target, depressed as usual and at my end. I don't recall what my boy said, but I snapped. I do know that what I said was unreasonable… It really clicked in at that point. I couldn't live like this.”
At some point, however, comes the sun over the horizon.
“Monday morning I woke up and thought, ‘I can do this,’” Scooberooni continued. “The best part of deployment is that I had less housework. Everything was where I left it. Less laundry to do, less cooking to do, less cleaning. I also enjoyed the extra bit of freedom. If I was running around with my son and it was getting late, we could just eat out. I didn't have to worry about leaving my husband with no dinner or not being there when he got home.”
She also noted the joy of creating her own family schedule, including making sure the children were in bed on time and therefore less cranky.
Many military spouses also enjoy the increase in meaningful communication, even if it can be limited.
“It forces us to talk more,” said ‘LadyBug5.’ “Just so that we can hear one another's voice or find a subject for an email, we'll talk about things that we didn't even realize the other person cared about or was interested in. We learn more about each other and it helps with the worrying to hear about a daily routine - even if it is really boring.”
“After so many years of marriage, I think most people tend to get into a routine, and take the other for granted,” said ‘Amie’. “For us the deployment brought us closer, it helped us get back to great communication between the two of us. It made both us take a better look at us as individuals, and helped us to get back to who we really are.”
However, the lack of communication can be frightening.
“I know the hardest part for me when my [husband] is deployed is the unknown,” said ‘lumbertsgirl.’ “I remember his last deployment he called me from base and about 5 minutes into our conversation I heard this really loud boom, and his response was ‘I love you honey but I have to go I will call you when I can.’” She did not hear from her husband for two weeks and obsessively monitored the television news, which she now acknowledges was not a good idea. “It’s like he tells me: ‘Sometimes no news is good news,’ and I never understood that until that moment,” explained lumbertsgirl.
For spouses of service members deployed to combat areas, the risk of injury and death can quickly hit home.
“I became friends with many of the guys [in my husband’s unit] and having to attend their memorials or funerals was extremely rough,” said Amie. “In the 15 months he was deployed, I went to more memorials or funerals than I ever had my entire 26 years on earth.”
Kristin Hendersen, journalist and author of While They’re At War (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), says that the emotions that military wives go through during deployment are often equivalent to the stages of mourning, whether or not the service member has died.
“When the war started, now and then a vague, monstrous cloud of worry would descend on me and I’d have trouble breathing – anticipatory grief, though I had no name for it at the time,” writes Henderson. To get through those rough moments, she would walk herself through every detail of what would happen if her husband died, and imagine how she would handle it.
Lack of 'face' time can also result in loneliness, especially if a spouse has not created a social support network of friends around her.
“When you feel the need to vent or share something great and he's not there it makes me feel awfully alone,” says Hawkwife. She also says that being the single parent can be make her feel lonely. It helps when she can bounce parenting ideas off her friends.
Of course, every experienced military wife will tell you that the key to getting through deployments is keeping busy. The good news is that the new-founded freedom provides more time to pursue professional and personal aspirations. Scooberooni remarks at how much more school work she gets done as she finishes her college degree. Other families use the opportunity to move back to their parents’ house so the children can spend time with grandparents.
Extra house maintenance and parenting, however, will certainly keep spouses busy. Mowing the lawn, driving kids to sports leagues, managing the finances and maintaining auto repair are among the tasks which spouses should prepare for. Financial experts say that all families should save a minimum of six months of cash for living expenses in case of an emergency. This is certainly true for military families who face the Murphy’s Law of deployment: The moment a service member deploys, the car will break down, the plumbing will burst or the roof will cave in. Military spouses must be prepared to manage these crises or have the resources to do it for them.
Just keeping the family together and communicating can keep you busy. Among the intensively creative efforts, many families make videos and share them over web sites. Most create elaborate care packages or at least send the occasional batch of homemade cookies. This communication is critical to expressing love and appreciation over long distance. It has the added benefit of keeping the service member involved in family members’ daily lives, so reintegration is not such a shock.
Focusing on the homecoming is the best part of all, especially for the kids. The decorating effort alone takes up tremendous time and creates a bond with families. Navy families, for example, create 400 foot-long ‘leis’ which drape over the bow of a homecoming ship. Banners for homes and signs for the homecoming party are also a favorite.
While working on the practical matters for homecoming, families are also dreaming up the activities of what they will do together when the service member gets home. It’s important to talk about those dreams, with your kids as well as your service member. The shared joy bonds the families, and the communication establishes expectations that can be planned for or adjusted.