The onset of this stage begins with the warning order for deployment. This stage ends when the Soldier actually departs from home station. The pre-deployment timeframe is extremely variable from several weeks to more than a year.
Stage 1. Pre-deployment
Time frame: variable
As the reality of the deployment finally sinks in, the Soldier and Family try to get their affairs in order. Long "honey-do" lists are generated dealing with all manner of issues including: home repairs, security (door and window locks, burglar alarms, etc.), car maintenance, finances, tax preparation, child care plans and wills, just to name a few. At the same time, many couples strive for increased intimacy. Plans are made for the "best" Christmas, the "perfect" vacation, or the "most" romantic anniversary. In contrast, there may be some ambivalence about sexual relations: "this is it for six months, but I do not want to be that close." Fears about fidelity or marital integrity are raised or may go unspoken. Other frequently voiced concerns may include: "How will the children handle the separation? Can I cope without him/her? Will my marriage survive?" In this very busy and tumultuous time, resolving all these issues, completing the multitude of tasks or fulfilling high expectations often falls short.
A common occurrence, just prior to deployment, is for Soldiers and their spouses to have a significant argument.5,9 For couples with a long history, this argument is readily attributed to the ebb-and-flow of marital life and therefore not taken too seriously. For younger couples, especially those experiencing an extended separation for the first time, such an argument can take on "catastrophic" proportions. Fears that the relationship is over can lead to tremendous anxiety for both Soldier and spouse. In retrospect, these arguments are most likely caused by the stress of the pending separation. From a psychological perspective, it is easier to be angry than confront the pain and loss of saying goodbye for six months or more.5,6
However, the impact of unresolved Family concerns can have potentially devastating consequences. From a command perspective, a worried, preoccupied Soldier is easily distracted and unable to focus on essential tasks during the critical movement of heavy military equipment. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to a serious accident or the development of a Soldier stress casualty who is mission ineffective.2,10,11 On the home front, significant spousal distress interferes with completing basic routines, concentrating at work, and attending to the needs of children. At worst, this can exacerbate children's fears that the parents are unable to adequately care for them or even that the Soldier will not return. Adverse reactions by children can include inconsolable crying, apathy, tantrums, and other regressive behaviors. In response, a downward spiral can develop - if not quickly checked - in which both Soldier and spouse become even more upset at the prospect of separating.
Stage 2. Deployment
Time frame: first month
Stage 3. Sustainment
Time frame: months two thru five
One challenge, during this stage, is the rapid speed of information provided by widespread phone and e-mail access. In the near future, one can even expect that individual Soldiers will have the ability to call home with personal cellular phones. Over long distances and without face-to-face contact, communications between husband and wife are much more vulnerable to distortion or misperception. Given this limitation, discussing "hot topics" in a marriage can be problematic and are probably best left on hold until after the deployment when they can be resolved more fully. Obvious exceptions, to this rule, include a Family emergency (i.e. the critical illness of a loved one) or a joyful event (i.e. the birth of a child). In these situations, the ideal route of communication is through the Red Cross so that the Soldier's command is able to coordinate emergency leave if required.
The re-deployment stage is essentially defined as the month before the Soldier is scheduled to return home.
Stage 4. Re-deployment
Time frame: months five thru six
Stage 5. Post-deployment
Time frame: three to six months after deployment
This stage starts with the "homecoming" of the deployed Soldier. This can be a wonderfully joyous occasion with children rushing to the returning parent followed by the warm embrace and kiss of the reunited couple. The unit then comes to attention for one last time, followed by words of praise from the senior commander present. Lastly, weapons are turned in and duffle bags retrieved and the Family goes home.
Homecoming can also be an extremely frustrating and upsetting experience. The date of return may change repeatedly or units may travel home piece-meal over several days. Despite best intentions, the spouse at home may not be able to meet the returning Soldier (short notice, the children might be sick, sitters cannot be found in the middle of the night, unable to get off work, etc.). Soldiers may expect to be received as "heroes" and "heroines" only to find that they have to make their own way home.
Typically, a "honeymoon" period follows in which couples reunite physically, but not necessarily emotionally. Some spouses express a sense of awkwardness in addition to excitement: "Who is this stranger in my bed?" For others, however, the desire for sexual intimacy may require time in order to reconnect emotionally first.
Eventually, Soldiers will want to reassert their role as a member of the Family, which can lead to tension.6 This is an essential task, which requires considerable patience to accomplish successfully. Soldiers may feel pressure to make up for lost time and missed milestones. Soldiers may want to take back all the responsibilities they had before. However, some things will have changed in their absence: spouses are more autonomous, children have grown, and individual personal priorities in life may be different. It is not realistic to return home and expect everything to be the same as before the deployment.
During this period, spouses may report a lost sense of independence. There may be resentment at having been "abandoned" for six months or more. Spouses may consider themselves to be the true heroes (watching the house, children, paying bills, etc.) while Soldiers cared only for themselves. At least one study (Zeff et. al., 1997) suggests that the stay-at-home parent is more likely to report distress than the deployed Soldier. Spouses will also have to adapt to changes. Spouses may find that they are more irritable with their mates underfoot. They may desire their "own" space. Basic household chores and routines need to be renegotiated. The role played by the spouse in the marriage must be reestablished.
Reunion with children can also be a challenge. Their feelings tend to depend on their age and understanding of why the Soldier was gone. Babies less than 1 year old may not know the Soldier and cry when held. Toddlers (1-3 years) may be slow to warm up. Pre-schoolers (3-6 years) may feel guilty and scared over the separation. School age children (6-12 years) may want a lot of attention. Teenagers (13-18 years) may be moody and may not appear to care. In addition, children are often loyal to the parent that remains behind and do not respond to discipline from the returning Soldier. They may also fear the Soldier's return: "Wait till Mommy/Daddy gets home!" Some children may display significant anxiety up to a year later ("anniversary reaction"), triggered by the possibility of separation. In addition, the Soldier may not approve of privileges granted to children by the non-deployed parent. However, it is probably best for the Soldier not to try to make changes right away and to take time renegotiating Family rules and norms. Not heeding this advice, the Soldier risks invalidating the efforts of his/her mate and alienating the children. Soldiers may feel hurt in response to such a lukewarm reception. Clearly going slow and letting the child(ren) set the pace goes a long way towards a successful reunion.