This month the Early Intervention team brings you a unique interview with a dad who is also a soldier. We are grateful for his willingness to share his experiences and knowledge with us. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were the ages of your children when you were deployed?
My children are ages 13, 9, and 7 years old.
What were some things you did to prepare yourself for being separated from your children prior to your deployment?
I make time for them. My wife and I try hard to bring everyone together as much as we can prior to each deployment. I am blessed with a good amount of time off prior to deploying and we just try to enjoy as much time together as possible.
What were some things you did to prepare your children for your deployment?
I give each child a “special a day with Dad” prior to deployment. My boys opted to share their day with me and we went to a college basketball game. We had a boys’ night out and a fun road trip that included a stop at Krispy Kreme!
For my daughter I checked her out of school one day and took her shopping. We went to Build a Bear and I helped her pick out a new stuffed animal. I had my voice recorded and put inside so she could hear me while I am away.
Whenever I am away for extended periods of time we do a “Kisses from Dad” jar. My wife has a large glass jar we fill with a Hershey kiss for each of them per day I am expected to be gone. The kids enjoy taking one out each day as a countdown until I return. It can be shocking at first to see how many kisses are in the jar but they enjoy seeing them disappear in anticipation of my return. It is worth noting that she has had to adjust the amount while they are sleeping sometimes due to unexpected changes in redeployment but overall they have enjoyed this concept.
Please describe the conversations you had with your spouse prior to your deployment in regards to supporting her and your children.
We have some very private talks and I am very open with her about the dangers at hand and my wishes for her and the family if something happens to me. Those topics are extremely difficult to talk about but there needs to be an openness and honesty in order to bring peace of mind to both spouses. Unfortunately I have seen too many friends pass away and it is extremely sad to see the burden laid on the spouse to make many decisions in a time of mourning and shock; there are things that could have been settled and talked about together prior to deployment. These are never easy talks but something I feel is necessary.
We made an extensive “honey to do list” of things that would alleviate stress for her while I was away. None of them were very intensive, just things that would have been a pain for her to have to deal with while I was not there to help. I worked to accomplish everything on the list and the things I couldn’t get done I found someone to do them while I was away or I told my wife to pay for them while I was gone.
My wife is quite independent and will go out of her way not to inconvenience others. Knowing this, I asked close friends and family I knew she would be comfortable with, to check in on her periodically and offer help because I knew she wouldn’t ask. For example, a man from our church volunteers to cut our lawn while I am away. People are willing to help but they need to know what we need. Unfortunately some people simply don’t ask for help.
What were some of your main fears and/or concerns regarding your children’s well being when you were deployed?
I have an amazing wife who seems at times to have been specifically programmed to be a military spouse. She handles the stress of the kids and the household extremely well. My concerns usually revolve around me not being there to support her and balance things out. While I am away it is difficult for my wife to simultaneously play the multiple roles required of her on a daily basis. The many roles of a parent can be overwhelming to any person parenting alone but throw in the added stress of knowing your spouse is in harms way and it can be overwhelming.
Another fear is that the added stress can cause friction on the relationships between the kids and my wife, along with the distance between the kids and myself. It is hard to remain emotionally close without being physically close. Staying close as a family unit is my largest concern while I am away.
What were some ways you were able to stay connected with your children when you were deployed?
I have had to force myself to walk away from my work and make time to talk to my spouse and my children. I routinely have to counsel others to do the same. Time zone changes and operational demands can make staying connected extremely difficult. You have to make time and do what you can to make it happen. Your family appreciates the effort made even if the communication is sporadic. It is important they understand they are still a priority in your life.
The topic of communication also relates to realistic expectations for both parties and having the hard talks prior to deployments. Prior to leaving I try to let my wife know how much she should expect to hear from me and what it might mean if she hasn’t heard from me for a long period of time. By having realistic expectations she can calm her nerves if my operational tempo picks up or takes me away from normal communication.
Fifteen years ago I remember being happy to make a phone once in a while but now there is wifi in some of the most remote areas of the world. While operational security should always be adhered to, it is much easier to stay connected today than in years past. I have been able to FaceTime with my spouse and children in some places while audio calls were all that was afforded in others. We normally have the longest gaps in communication when I am out on actual operations.
Please describe your transition back home. Did you do anything to prepare yourself and/or your children? Were there any challenges?
Transitioning home is something that often gets overlooked and something for which both sides need to prepare. Many people are aware of specific combat related concerns such as post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and other adjustment related issues. However, I want to share a few other examples that could cause martial friction if not discussed prior to returning home.
Kitchen duties: When deployed I eat prepared meals on paper plates with plastic utensils. I grab a drink and then scarf down my food at a rapid rate. Upon finishing, I throw it all away and go back to work. No thought is ever put into where the food came from, when or how it was cooked, who provided the service ware, etc. In my mind they magically appear at scheduled hours.
No family in America has a military kitchen staff working military hours in their home. Nor do they typically have an endless supply of paper plates and plastic utensils in a bin by the entryway. There is grocery shopping to do, meals to make, and dishes to do. Sometimes service members need to prepare themselves just to come back to a normal kitchen.
Quiet time: While deployed I spend a lot of time in silent or quiet areas. I am married with three kids which means that this is a busy, noisy home to which I must readjust. This takes preparation and intentional effort.
A sense of urgency: When deployed I am often called upon to meet unrealistic expectations and work an unreasonable amount of hours; many times to address life or death situations. Life is truly on the line and seconds do matter. While this is extremely stressful it is quite rewarding when done successfully. However, when transitioning home after months of these kinds of demands, the request to pick up cheese on the way home before Taco Tuesday, while heroic in its own right, pales in comparison in the mind of the warrior.
Intimacy: This is an area a couple should discuss throughout the deployment so neither partner is expecting different things when transition happens.
Time with the fellow service members: Team camaraderie while deployed in combat is something hard to put into words. I have a hard time explaining the bond made with these individuals but it is safe to say transitioning home means spending less time with them. While I welcome the idea of spending more time with my family, many service members build a bond in war that leaves them feeling depressed or alone when similar bonds are not found in their life back home. It is hard to replicate the camaraderie at home that is experienced overseas.
Survivor’s remorse: One of the hardest things I ever did was go home from deployments where fellow team members had died. Realizing you are going home while others will never see their loved ones again is very difficult to comprehend and even harder to accept. It needs to be talked about and people need to be told it is ok to feel horrible that you are still alive.
I have learned over time there is no greater act a person can do than to pour his or herself into the lives of their loved ones. When I was younger I had trouble transitioning home. Now with more age and experience, I gladly count down the days anxiously awaiting redeployment home. Healthy discussion and expectation management has helped me tremendously.
This post was edited by Robyn DiPietro-Wells & Michaelene Ostrosky, PhD, members of the OneOp FD Early Intervention team, which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about OneOp FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.