Military Family Appreciation month is celebrated in November. In honor of military families, I’d like to give you a sense of what some military families go through before, during and after a deployment. Military deployment typically means a military member received orders that send him or her away from home. I say typically because there are some unmanned aircraft systems operators, otherwise known as drone pilots, who don’t actually leave home. They go to work everyday, gather intelligence, make decisions, observe some difficult situations and then go home to their families who expect them to live a normal family life. Some military members are sent to places not considered a warzone, like Japan or Germany, while others are sent to places where there is unrest, not wars, as a peacekeeping force. Sometimes, military members are sent somewhere in the United States to handle domestic issues. Then there are others who are sent to warzones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Each situation is hard on families. I know because I experienced one.
My son, Kyle, served twice in Iraq as army infantry. He was there in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009. He had his 19th birthday in Iraq. Can you imagine sending one of your children into a warzone? As a mother, it is incredibly difficult. Can you imagine sending your husband or wife? Can you imagine the pain a child endures when a parent is absent, anywhere between three months and a year? The only word I can think of is sacrifice. Most military members choose their path. They have a desire to defend our country, want to serve in a military way or maybe wanted the benefit of the GI Bill. Whatever their reason, military members chose their path. Their husbands, wives and children did not.
Prior to deployment, a military member often feels excited to be called to do the job they’ve been trained to do. Families are often hurt that their family member seems so excited to leave them. Naturally, the military members are conflicted because they don’t want to leave the family, but they do want to do the work and accomplish the mission. Family members are also conflicted, because while they are incredibly proud of their service member, they also hate the fact that country comes first. Of course, they don’t want their military member away from the family for extended periods of time.
As the deployment nears, there are a lot of demands on the service member. There is preparation, training and requirements that need their attention. This naturally takes time away from the family—precious time that family members want to spend with their service member. However, they are proud and understand that their work is important. They make sacrifices so the military member can serve.
During this preparation phase, family members need to talk about things, such as how they will communicate during the deployment, what topics they will discuss and whether there is an expectation of fidelity. These are hard conversations to have. Then, there is the preparation of the children… sometimes there is already a pregnancy the military member may have to miss. Perhaps there is a toddler who may forget their parent in a year’s time. Teenagers can be overly compliant and helpful, or they can be resistant and resentful. Each comes with its own set of challenges. An over-compliant child generally is looking out for his or her parent but may be neglecting their own emotions; they also may be compliant in other areas of life where it isn’t so beneficial. Angry at their parent’s absence, a resentful child will give his or her caregiver problems instead of helping while refusing to cope with their emotions in a healthy way; this may cause problems in other areas of their life, as well.
Once deployment commences, there is the obvious loss of the military member from the family environment. This tends to leave a gaping hole in the family and their routines. Who will do all the work of the service member while they are away? What can be let go? Are there auxiliary people to help?
When the deployment is happening, there may be concern over the service member’s safety, particularly in a warzone. There is always concern when regular communication is interrupted. Unless they are seasoned in deployments, most families let their minds go to worst-case scenario. There may also be concerns of infidelity from both the one staying home and the one being deployed. Additional concerns arise if there actually has been cheating.
Another family complaint I’ve heard during deployment involves the service member receiving an assignment in a desirable place, such as a tropical location, where Facebook posts from the military base may include a plethora of pictures involving surf and beaches. This can cause some resentment when the family member is home trying to hold down the fort.
Another cause of disruption happens when the family member makes decisions differently than they would have if their service member was home. This might be because the family member is feeling the independence and wants to do things their way, or it could happen simply because it’s the path of least resistance. This can cause challenges when the service member returns home.
And finally, during reintegration, the family is often waiting for things to “get back to normal.” This is not going to happen. The old normal will be very difficult to return to because during the deployment, people change. Each individual had experiences the others didn’t, making it difficult to go back to “normal.” The task of military families is to discover a “new normal”—ways of incorporating the changes and experiences into the fabric of the family in a way most civilian families will never know.
It is for these reasons, and many more, that I thank our military families for their sacrifices. Through their sacrifice, our military members can do the work they are trained to do to protect our country and democracy everywhere. The only thing harder than being a military member is loving one. You have my deep gratitude and respect.