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By Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Before I had much interaction with military service members and their families on a personal level and as a clinician, I always imagined homecoming as a most magical time. I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the happily-ever-afters and the glamour of it all. But after having true interactions and conversations, I quickly realized that those images I had created in my head were simply not real.

Yes, it’s a wonderful thing for families to be reunited from deployments. It’s thrilling, exciting, and heartwarming! But, it can also be stressful, frustrating, confusing, and heartbreaking. I have noticed two common themes in my conversations and limited research on homecomings: The person that left for deployment is not the same person that returns and neither are the families left behind. And, it is extremely difficult getting back into a routine after deployments.

Our service members are being sent to places they have never been to fight for our country and for people they have never even met. They are seeing things, hearing things, and feeling things that they never imagined in even their wildest dreams. They experience the unspeakable. They lose friends, they lose parts of their body. They see children die. They are on high alert at all times. They come in contact with people who appear to have no souls.

The spouses and family members are left stateside to care for the children and tend to the homes. The bills still have to be paid, the children still have homework and ball practice, and there are still flat tires, medical emergencies, and really bad days. Jobs still want their employees to show up and schools expect children to be on time. Adjustments have to be made for new routines without their spouse.

And then, the service members return home. Sure, the first few days are blissful; filled with welcome home signs, hugs, kisses, barbecues, and celebrations. But then, reality hits. It’s time to get back to life; the bills are still there, and obligations to jobs and families remain.

How are our service members and their families supposed to slip right back into life as it was before deployment? And, is it even possible to do that? We are all shaped by the experiences we have in our lives. While service members are shaped by the sights, sounds, and feelings they have had overseas, so too are the family members who have been at home trying to maintain their normalcy and create routines and structure.

I asked two friends to share their experiences of transitioning back from deployment and here is what they told me:

“It is always exciting when you begin the countdown to your spouse returning home from deployment and then that final day is finally here. But when you have kids involved in the countdown, you always do a type of countdown where you can add a few days without them really knowing a difference.  The return date usually changes. There is a feeling of joy and love that your family is finally complete again after so many months apart.  It can also be a frustrating time, as you have to learn one another again and get into a new routine…especially when you have kiddos involved.  Deployment is hard!  After so many months apart, things just don’t go back to the way they were before my spouse left.  Everyone has grown, physically and emotionally, especially the kids.  After many deployments, my husband still hears, “we don’t do it like that anymore daddy”.  Something I have learned about life after deployment is that it takes time.  Nothing is “normal” and we all have to learn each other and how to live with each other again.  Communication is always key.”

“Life after deployment can be challenging because as the mothers who stay back and hold down the fort, so to speak, and take on both duties of mom and dad, we learn to get into our own routine. When dads return, it can often feel like they are getting in the way and messing up the flow of what we have been doing for so long. It’s basically a control thing for us women, I found out. Also, we establish these friendships that we like to call “sister wives” where we help each other out by cooking for each other, cleaning, watching each other’s kids, etc… so when the spouse returns, that is also something that is difficult to balance because we want to have these friendships and relationships stay strong for the next time we face deployment, but then our husband’s want our undivided attention since they have been away from us for so long. It’s a balancing act that we have to work on when they return home and realize that we are going to screw up, have frustrations and step on each other’s toes. But we need to communicate these feelings in the moment and not let them fester. It took some time to figure this out, but once we prepared for those challenges before he stepped off the plane, the easier it was.”

Are we doing enough to help our military families to transition back to their lives after deployment? Do we have enough resources for them? I think we need to be talking about how we can help protect those who sacrifice so very much to protect us. It’s certainly a conversation worth having.

A special thank you to Erin Schnoes and Tara Brown for sharing their experiences as Air Force spouses.

This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, social media and webinar coordination specialist for OneOp. The OneOp team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about OneOp on our Facebook, and Twitter.

Blog Image: Flickr [American by Kevin Cortopassi, August 15, 2015, CC BY-ND 2.0]