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Homecoming. The event that military families everywhere hope for, dream of, and look forward to. But homecoming is not what everyone thinks it is. It is not always the fairytale that tv shows and movies make it out to be. Homecoming is hard, and it’s definitely not always happily ever after.
My own homecoming is coming up very soon. I have been told by other military wives what to expect and been given advice, but I wondered how much civilians knew about what goes on behind the scenes after homecoming. I wanted my civilian friends to know that homecoming isn’t necessarily the end, that sometimes the war continues at home too.
Since I have not been through a homecoming yet, I asked a very dear friend to write about it. Aprille wrote a wonderful post from her heart, her words striking deep even with me. I hope that you will read them, and accept them as if they were coming from me. I ask you to understand that this journey is not over, and that we covet your prayers for our family over the next few months.
Military reunions are well-known as very exciting and happy experiences, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that homecoming and reintegration are very difficult times as well. For a military family, the weeks before their reunion is an anxiety-filled wait, and the weeks and months after their reunion are filled with many challenges.
“No, I don’t know when he is coming home!”
“So when is he coming home?” This is probably the most frequently asked question a military spouse receives. Naturally, others are excited for her because she is finally going to be reunited with her husband! But for the soldier who is traveling home from the other side of the world, it’s a complicated multi-step process. There are chopper and plane schedules, other military personnel who may need to rush home for emergencies, weather factors, and of course the presence of the enemy and the battles of the war. For this reason homecoming details are never finalized until the last minute, change often, and need to be kept very secret to keep our military members safe. The very earliest notice I have ever had of exactly when my husband was arriving home was 14 hours, and even then his flight ended up landing 2 hours later than expected. The military projects estimates and approximates to the families for planning purposes, but those estimates are rarely exactly when it actually ends up happening.
For the spouse that loves and supports her service member, the process is just as frantic. There are chores to get done, banners to make, balloons to blow up, middle of the night phone-calls to answer, hopes and dreams about the return to deal with, as well as the fear of what problems or stresses the soldier might be bringing home with him. The bottom line is that homecoming is not just this dreamy “wish come true” in which everyone lives happily ever after. Even at its best, it’s a challenge and a struggle for all parties involved.
The World English Dictionary defines “reintegrate” as “to make or be made into a whole again.” Deployments split military families into fragments, and the process of putting those fragments back together and making the family whole again is difficult and painstaking. With that in mind, here are some things that friends and family can do to support a military family experiencing reunion after deployment.
Please respect our homecoming wishes.
Some military members will want all their extended family there to welcome them home from war…others only want their spouses (even leaving the children with a sitter). This will depend on the personality of the service member and the dynamics of his or her family. If we ask you not to attend the ceremony or come into town for homecoming, PLEASE understand that this is not some sort of personal attack on you. We just need some space and alone time to get used to each other again before adding the stress of extended family and friends. If we ask you to come, then come, but understand that we will still need space. Make hotel accommodations and don’t plan big surprises or parties for that week. The greatest need a returning service member has the first week he is home is sleep and peace.
Not everyone has the same homecoming experience.
Every family’s personality is different. Some couples will run to each other, jump into each other’s arms, cry and kiss and hug for a long time before leaving the homecoming facilities. Others, like my husband and I, favor a quick peck on the cheek and “let’s just get out of here” approach and save the more intimate and emotional reunion for the privacy of our own homes. Neither is right or wrong. And while we may imagine or plan it a certain way, when that moment actually happens, it rarely ends up going the way we envisioned it. Please don’t put expectations on us as to how we should or should not act at homecoming.
“There are no unwounded soldiers!”
No service member comes back from a deployment without bearing some scars of what they have experienced. It doesn’t matter if they were in Iraq, Kuwait, Africa, or Afghanistan; if they sat at a desk or behind a sniper rifle; if they were gone for 6 weeks or 16 months. Will there be varying degrees of their wounds? Absolutely… but ALL will be affected in some way. Soldiers experience long work hours, no breaks, monotony, lack of American comforts, fatigue, adjusting their bodies to a new time zone (and then back again), anxiety, sleep disorders, fear, sinful temptations, and time spent away from their precious families. Nothing about deployment is enjoyable or easy. Please don’t downplay a service member’s wounds because they are “invisible” or because the soldier “seems fine.” You have no idea what they have been through or what they and their families now have to deal with for the rest of their lives. Even little things like stuttering or being uncomfortable in social situations can be little symptoms of the “invisible wounds” they are trying to heal. Please don’t mock these things or take them personally.
Every military spouse is now a caretaker.
As the service member begins to heal from his physical and invisible wounds, the primary person that steps in to care for him during that process is his wife. For some spouses, this means attending multiple appointments, sitting beside hospital beds, and driving their service member everywhere he needs to go. For others, the responsibilities are less consuming, but still include being a calming presence in stressful situations or providing comfort after nightmares and sleep disturbances. Military spouses whose military members are facing problems like severe anxiety and PTSD can find themselves dealing with secondary/anticipatory anxiety and PTSD. Often they get so used to their soldiers reacting in a certain way to stress that, in seeking to lesson their reactions, they anticipate the reactions ahead of time and develop their own anxiety about the upcoming situation. This stress can cause severe emotional and physical fatigue, which in time can make it harder and harder for them to care for the needs of their soldier. Look for ways to help alleviate the stress of a military spouse. Offer a quick hug, a prayer, or just a listening ear for when she gets overwhelmed.
“Mama just needs a break!”
A military spouse getting ready to be reunited with her husband, especially one who has small children, fantasizes about getting a break. She dreams of her husband taking over all of the fatherly responsibilities seamlessly while she finally gets a chance to set down the burdens she has been carrying for the last few months…the burdens of being a single parent, taking out the trash every week, managing the home and finances, and staying up late for Skype dates and phone calls. While some of this does in fact happen once the family is reunited, the service member’s homecoming brings a whole new set of responsibilities to her plate. Her service member may even be unable to step back into the roles that he was filling before he deployed for various reasons. So now she is caring for her husband’s wounds, adapting to his schedule, doing loads and loads of extra laundry, and actually having to cook real meals again (as opposed to eating ice cream for dinner!).
On top of her extra responsibilities, her current responsibilities become more difficult. Children most often react to stress (even good stress) by acting out. They misbehave more, sleep and nap less, and are just out of sorts in general. They are adjusting to daddy being home again, but daddy is different than what they remembered. Sometimes he may be distant, moody, angry…he may even curse on accident. Small children cannot comprehend what has happened to daddy. They just know that things are different. “Oh, and why does daddy suddenly want to take so much of mommy’s attention? No she’s MY mommy!” Toddlers can become jealous that they no longer have mom’s undivided attention. And there’s pretty much nothing worse than a service member with mental difficulties than a screaming baby! Suddenly “the-military-wife-who-just-dreams-of-finally-getting-a-break” begins to feel more like the rope used in the game of tug of war between the cranky kids and the stressed out husband.
Both over the two week RnR (mid-tour leave) during my husband’s second deployment and the weeks following his homecoming, the word I could have used most to describe how I felt was simply “exhausted”! Look for specific ways to lend a helping hand to the military spouse that you know. Offer to take her children for the evening so that she and her husband can have a quiet evening at home to themselves. Offer to bring them a meal. If you have been providing services like lawn care, taking out her trash, or car maintenance, ask her if she would like you to continue while her husband adjusts to simply being home. Provide social outlets for her by continuing to invite her over for coffee dates or girl’s nights. While at first we military wives love to spend every waking moment with our returned service member, after a week or two we start to go through “girlfriend withdrawal” and sometimes a heart-to-heart talk with a friend provides just the perspective we need to hold ourselves together for one more draining day.
Reintegration is just hard
One of the best illustrations that I can think of to explain what reintegration is like is that of a first-time mom and dad bringing home their newborn. Those first few weeks are both blissful and brutal! Yes, they are so glad that the misery of pregnancy is FINALLY over! But now they have to deal with a lack of sleep, trying to get into a new routine, grieving the loss of a carefree we-can-do-whatever-we-want-when-we-want marriage, and a ton of extra responsibilities. Being a new parent is just hard! We as military spouses would no more send our husbands back to war than new parents would take that wonderful new baby back to the hospital. Of course we are incredibly thankful to God that the misery of deployment is finally over and yes we are thankful that our husbands are home safely! But that doesn’t mean it’s all blissful, easy, and wonderful either. If you see us in the store and we seem like we are acting less-than-in-love and snapping at our children, it doesn’t mean that we are headed for divorce…it may just mean that daddy had a nightmare which woke up the baby and then neither daddy or baby could go back to sleep and mommy was a ping-pong ball between them all night… everyone is just exhausted! Please don’t pass critical judgments on us because we aren’t blissfully happy all the time.
Reintegration takes as long as it takes
How long does it take to make a family “whole again?” According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “Successful reintegration does not happen overnight; it takes time (as long as 7 months)…” Army Chaplain Thomas W. Cox spoke at a briefing on combat stress hosted by Operation Faithful Support and stated that it can actually take as long as 18 months. The truth is that the answer will differ from family to family, from service member to service member.
This process is further complicated by multiple and recurring deployments. My husband found out less than three months after he returned home from his first deployment that his unit was scheduled to deploy again the following year. At that point “reintegration” (trying to make our family whole) became just a dread-filled break from another deployment. There are things that we did not deal with properly because we were just anticipating being ripped apart again, so what was the point? (In hindsight, that was the wrong attitude to have, but this is a very natural response among military families.) Often the service member is home just a few months before he has to uproot his struggling-to-reintegrate family off to another duty station to face more training for yet another deployment in the months ahead. I have another friend whose husband is an Air Force pilot who deploys on a 3-months-home then 3-months-deployed schedule. It makes for quite an emotional roller coaster for her and her young son. The military doesn’t make it exceptionally easy for military families to reintegrate because they rarely have enough time to do so fully. In many a case, a family is never completely made whole again. Just as a shattered vase will still have cracks and scrapes even when glued back together, most military families bare the scars of multiple separations and deployments, and are just held together by faith, love, and the grace of God.
Above all, pray for patience and healing for all military families. Be patient with them. If you are loving and supporting a military family facing a reunion and reintegration, know that you are in this journey with them for the long-haul. Don’t “jump off the wagon” when it gets hard. Stay by them, love them, and support them without judgment even when they seem less-than-pleasant or become distant when they face difficulties.
Not every military family will face all of the challenges described here. Some families reintegrate smoothly, others have a much harder time. Remember that every military family is different. But what we all have in common is that we need love, understanding, patience, and prayer.
This post is a follow up to Kathryn’s Post: Dear Civilians: What Every Military Wife Wants You to Know
Aprille is a 5-year Active Duty Army spouse going through reintegration after her husband’s second year-long deployment to Afghanistan. She and her husband Russ have been married for four years and they have a 19-month-old son Ezra. This post was written with the collaboration of her husband. You can read more about their military life together at beautifulinhistime.com