Friday, October 9, 2009

Deployment: My Feelings on Separation and Preparation

Deployment number three is coming up around the corner and is fast approaching. No one can ever relate with you unless they have actually been through a deployment. This deployment is different, I am married. The last deployment we were dating. My feeling range from excited for it to start and be over, loneliness, anger, sadness and numb. Hopefully, I can somehow share with you the ups and downs.

When I hear other Army couples talk about deployment, they tend to say "we" are deploying. How can "we" deploy? Brandon is the one going to the war zone. I am not the one going to live in a desert for a year, live in a CHU(Container Handling Unit), sanity to the outside world is through my laptop, and gets to carry a weapon wherever he goes. (NOTE: Never call his weapon a gun)

Below is the Stages of Deployment. The bolded part of Stage 1 is where we are right now. Nothing in my life could ever prepare me for what I am feeling right now. Please take the time to read the bolded.

The Five Stages of Deployment
1. Pre-deployment

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
  • Anticipation of loss vs. denial
  • Train-up/long hours away
  • Getting affairs in order
  • Mental/physical distance
  • Arguments
Time frame: variable
The pre-deployment stage is characterized alternately by denial and anticipation of loss. As the departure date gets closer, spouses often ask: "You don't really have to go, do you?" Eventually, the increased field training, preparation, and long hours away from home herald the extended separation that is to come. Soldiers energetically talk more and more about the upcoming mission and their unit. This "bonding" to fellow Soldiers is essential to unit cohesion that is necessary for a safe and successful deployment. Yet, it also creates an increasing sense of emotional and physical distance for military spouses.5,7,8 In their frustration, many spouses complain: "I wish you were gone already." It is as if their loved ones are already "psychologically deployed."

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.

Although easier said than done, it is often helpful for military couples - in the pre-deployment stage - to discuss in detail their expectations of each other during the deployment. These expectations can include a variety of issues, to include: freedom to make independent decisions, contact with the opposite sex (fidelity), going out with friends, budgeting, child-rearing, and even how often letters or care packages will be sent. Failure to accurately communicate these and other expectations is frequently a source of misperception, distortion and hurt later on in the deployment. It is difficult at best to resolve major marital disagreements when face-to-face, let alone over six thousand miles apart.

2. Deployment: This stage is the period from the Soldier's departure from home through the first month of the deployment.

Stage 2. Deployment
  • Mixed emotions/relief
  • Disoriented/overwhelmed
  • Numb, sad, alone
  • Sleep difficulty
  • Security issues
Time frame: first month
A roller coaster of mixed emotions is common during the deployment stage. Some military spouses report feeling disoriented and overwhelmed. Others may feel relieved that they no longer have to appear brave and strong. There may be residual anger at tasks left undone. The Soldier's departure creates a "hole," which can lead to feelings of numbness, sadness, being alone or abandonment. It is common to have difficulty sleeping and anxiety about coping. Worries about security issues may ensue, including: "What if there is a pay problem? Is the house safe? How will I manage if my child gets sick? What if the car breaks down?" For many, the deployment stage is an unpleasant, disorganizing experience.

3. Sustainment: The sustainment stage lasts from the first month through the fifth (penultimate) month of deployment.

Stage 3. Sustainment
  • New routines established
  • New sources of support
  • Feel more in control
  • Independence
  • Confidence ("I can do this")
Time frame: months two thru five
Sustainment is a time of establishing new sources of support and new routines. Many rely on the Family Readiness Group (FRG), which serves as a close network that meets on a regular basis to handle problems and disseminate the latest information. Others are more comfortable with Family, friends, church or other religious institution as their main means of emotional support. As challenges come up, most spouses learn that they are able to cope with crises and make important decisions on their own. They report feeling more confident and in control. During the sustainment stage, it is common to hear military spouses say: "I can do this!"

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.

On a related note, many spouses report significant frustration because phone contact is unidirectional and must be initiated by the Soldier. Some even report feeling "trapped" at home for fear that they will miss a call. Likewise, Soldiers may feel forgotten if they call - especially after waiting a long time on line to get to a phone - and no one is home. This can lead to anger and resentment, especially if an expectation regarding the frequency of calls is unmet. Now that Internet and e-mail are widely available, spouses report feeling much more in control as they can initiate communication and do not have to stay waiting by the phone. Another advantage of e-mail, for both Soldier and spouse, is the ability to be more thoughtful about what is said and to "filter out" intense emotions that may be unnecessarily disturbing. This is not to say that military couples should "lie" to protect each other, but rather it helps to recognize that the direct support available from one's mate is limited during the deployment.

4. Re-deployment:

The re-deployment stage is essentially defined as the month before the Soldier is scheduled to return home.

Stage 4. Re-deployment
  • Anticipation of homecoming
  • Excitement
  • Apprehension
  • Burst of energy/"nesting"
  • Difficulty making decisions
Time frame: months five thru six

The re-deployment stage is generally one of intense anticipation. Like the deployment stage, there can be a surge of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, there is excitement that the Soldier is coming home. On the other, there is some apprehension. Some concerns include: "Will he (she) agree with the changes that I have made? Will I have to give up my independence? Will we get along?" Ironically, even though the separation is almost over, there can be renewed difficulty in making decisions. This is due, in part, to increased attention to choices that the returning Soldier might make. Many spouses also experience a burst of energy during this stage.5,6 There is often a rush to complete "to-do" lists before their mate returns - especially around the home. It is almost inevitable that expectations will be high.

5. Post-deployment:

Stage 5. Post-deployment
  • Honeymoon period
  • Loss of independence
  • Need for "own" space
  • Renegotiating routines
  • Reintegrating into Family
Time frame: three to six months after deployment
The post-deployment stage begins with the arrival to home station. Like the pre-deployment stage, the timeframe for this stage is also variable depending on the particular Family. Typically, this stage lasts from three to six months.

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.

Post-deployment is probably the most important stage for both Soldier and spouse. Patient communication, going slow, lowering expectations and taking time to get to know each other again is critical to the task of successful reintegration of the Soldier back into the Family.5,6 Counseling may be required in the event that the Soldier is injured or returns as a stress casualty. On the other hand, the separation of deployment - unlike civilian couples - provides Soldier and spouse a chance to evaluate changes within themselves and what direction they want their marriage to take. Although a difficult as well as joyful stage, many military couples have reported that their relationship is much stronger as a result.

I moved to Germany three months ago to be with Brandon. Since my arrival, we have spent more time apart then together. Do to field training and exercises. He has been gone for seven weeks from our home in another part of Germany for training.

What have I been doing? Good question. I will get back to you.

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