By Imogen Reed
23 May 2012
At the end of September 2010, over 1.4 million servicemen were on active duty in the US with a further 840,000 in reserve components. This is a huge amount of the US population, over half of which have families and children. Whilst we continue to support and applaud the invaluable work and huge personal sacrifice of those in the armed forces, it can be easy to forget the effect that their work can have on their families too.
One of the most difficult things for military families to deal with is deployment. Figures from the Department of Defense indicate that at any given time there are 200,000 US children growing up with a parent away at war. But this isn’t just a case of a child or a partner missing their parent or spouse for the six months that they might not be around. Deployment is generally regarded to have three stages: pre-deployment, deployment and post-deployment, each of which come with their own challenges.
Pre deployment refers to the time before the serviceman or woman physically leaves on deployment. They may be away for short periods on training but ‘missing them’ at this stage isn’t generally as prevalent as emotional distress, anxiety and anticipation of what is yet to come. It is generally a time where there is a distinct feeling of unrest and fear of the unknown due to a lack of concrete information, which can lead to clinginess, fearfulness and withdrawal in children. Adult relationships may also suffer as partners deal with the prospect of separation and mix anxious quarrels with closeness.
There are practical, legal and emotional ways in which military families can utilise the pre-deployment phase to ensure as much peace of mind as possible for the coming months. Examples of this include making sure that the home is physically secure and establishing a spending/bill-paying plan during the time that one adult is away and the details of international money transfers are planned ahead of time. Although it's a difficult subject to broach, realistically speaking it is also advisable for current wills for both spouses to be in place. In order to provide some comfort to their children, parents should agree a regular letter writing/telephoning schedule and even make cassette recordings so that the children can hear their parent's voice on tap.
During the deployment phase, the remaining parent must take on both parental roles which is challenging both for them and their children. Sometimes they may need the added support of relatives and friends and may even need to relocate to be near to them. Obviously these are big changes in themselves that will undoubtedly affect the family dynamic. Aside from this there will be daily anxiety for the military parent, particularly if they are based in a warzone where risk of injury and death is higher. This constant worry can have psychological and behavioural effects on families and particularly children, although just how they will react to the pressure of their parent’s deployment is heavily dependent on their developmental stage, temperament and age. However a study commissioned by the National Association of Military Families showed that approximately one third of military children aged 11-17 expressed some symptoms of anxiety during the deployment phase; this is double that seen in civilian families.
In order to retain some normality during the deployment phase, the at-home parent should try to stick to daily routines where possible and avoid the temptation to let their usual discipline and boundaries slip just to compensate for the absence of the other parent. In the long run keeping order will make children, particularly younger children, feel more settled and reassured. Maintaining contact with the military parent can also help keep everyones spirits high. It can be difficult to keep in regular contact due to time zones and limitation of telephones in military camps, but even a short chat can make a big difference. The at-home parent should also speak to people and utilise support wherever possible. There are several military support groups, family centres and even online communities (such as CinCHouse.com) where they will be able to raise concerns with experts and share their worries and experiences with families in similar situations.
The post deployment phase refers to the time in which the service member returns to their family and re-integrates back into their old life. This can be difficult for everyone concerned as lots can change during the deployment phase. For the returning service member, the pressure of war can cause major mental health issues with some studies suggesting that as many as 1 in 8 servicemen experience PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) which can lead to emotional anxiety, sleep problems, irritability and feelings of guilt and shame. Many servicemen and women expect to return into their old lives as if nothing has changed and may struggle to understand that their family dynamic has altered in their absence.
Similarly, military family members may find it hard to adjust to the return of their parent/spouse, particularly if it brings changes to their new roles and responsibilities within the family unit. Sometimes they may find it difficult to accept the changes in their parent/spouse, particularly if they are suffering from PTSD. Children may resent the return of another authority figure or experience fear of separation even though their parent has returned. This can lead to extreme behavioural opposites such as clinginess or rejection of the parent back into the family unit.
Re-adjustment for families during the post deployment phase can be achieved mostly by exercising patience. Give yourselves time to get used to the changes and be exceptionally patient with children who may, at first, appear distant, shy or afraid around a parent who has been absent for a while. Form a new routine and remember that communication is imperative. There are several organizations, centers and retreats where families can go in order to repair and strengthen family bonds after deployment. Examples of these include The Coming Home Project, Strong Bonds and Operation Purple.
There is no denying that deployment for a service member and their family can ultimately be detrimental to the family unit. For some families it can cause a complete breakdown and sadly rates of divorce and child abuse are climbing as deployments become longer and more frequent. But with good preparation, communication, patience and, above all, love, there is plenty of hope for military families as the servicemen and women within them carry out their invaluable work.
Freedom Is Not Free is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to assisting wounded service members and their families, and the families of the fallen. Freedom Is Not Free makes grants to Purple Heart recipients and their families to meet their immediate financial needs, including but not limited to, the expenses associated with medical care, travel, home modification, and paying bills. We support community projects and provide activities for wounded service members and their families.
CLICK BELOW TO VIEW OUR E-NEWSLETTER ARCHIVES!
U.S. Troops Killed in OIF: 4,422
U.S. Troops Killed in OEF: 2,100
U.S. Wounded in Action: 50,407
As of 14 May 2013