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Returning Soldiers Bring Joy, Stress to Families

Since the beginning of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have deployed overseas to fight—over half of them parents. That's a lot of children saying goodbye to Mom or Dad—and then, hopefully, welcoming that parent home again.


Published: May 15, 2006
by: Rebecca Freshour

Since the beginning of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have deployed overseas to fight—over half of them parents. That's a lot of children saying goodbye to Mom or Dad—and then, hopefully, welcoming that parent home again.

For soldiers and their families the reunions are both long-awaited and bittersweet. The soldiers are learning how to be home again, where danger does not lurk around every corner. Their spouses and children are going through the readjustment of having their loved one back home after so many months of being without them.

Trying to Put the Pieces Back Together
Ed and Jackie Love are taking it one day at a time. Ed was gone to training and then Iraq for a year, returning just in time for Christmas of 2005. Their youngest daughter Clara, 3, is experiencing separation anxiety. "She would throw a fit whenever I would get out of her sight," says Jackie. "She has gotten better since she started daycare, but it was hard for all of us. In the beginning when I would drop her off I would have to leave her screaming. That was very hard."

Clara also demands to be with her daddy when he is home, as does their oldest daughter Hannah. Hannah, 8, is rebellious towards her mother when Jackie tries to discipline her. "She doesn't want to listen to me because her dad was always the disciplinarian and now that he is home, it's gotten worse." Ed, meanwhile isn't anxious to resume the role. "I missed them and so much of their lives while I was gone that it's hard to punish them," he states. "I know it's hard for Jackie, especially when they don't listen."

Gloria Lee Whitehead has also seen the repercussions of wartime deployment on her family. Her husband came back from his second tour in Iraq in January 2005. Gloria sees the tension between her son, 12, and her husband on a daily basis. It has been "an uneasy adjustment" for her son, who had to take on some responsibilities, such as lawn care and taking out the trash, while his dad was deployed. He now has to learn how to be a child again.

Her daughter, 5, takes as much time with her dad as she can. "Every time he sits down, my daughter is right there, wanting to be held," says Gloria. "She became a great deal whinier with him home."

Collateral Damage: Divorce, Depression Risk
The damage to a marriage can be serious. According to the Psychology Department for the U.S. Army Medical Department Activity, the divorce rate among enlisted families rose 53 percent between 2000 and 2004, and divorces among officers have also risen. At least some of the increase is likely due to both the stress disorders that soldiers face when their deployments end, and from the strain on families caused by repeated deployments and extensions of time overseas.

The military has developed some programs to help the families understand and deal with the strain the deployment will cause. Margaret Scurfield, director of the Fleet and Family Support Center at CBC Naval Center in Gulfport, Miss. explained that the Navy has programs such as pre-deployment marriage retreats and couples' communications classes that employ trained staff to help spouses understand and address each other's concerns. They also offer individual and marriage counseling.

During a soldier's deployment, his or her entire family may struggle with depression. A soldier's homecoming may ease the sadness -- but sometimes it takes more, including counseling, medication or both, to restore a family's balance. And all of these issues are exacerbated if the returning soldier has been physically disabled or wounded. Some bases, such as the CBC Naval Center in Gulfport, offer classes to family members to teach them what signs and changes to look for to determine if a spouse or child needs psychological counseling. For soldiers returning with a disability, Scurfield suggests they visit the Veterans' Center at their local V.A. Hospital.

For soldiers returning home from war, post-traumatic stress disorder (www.ncptsd.va.gov) can also be a factor. Scurfield says that she only sees a small percentage of soldiers with PTSD, but feels that may change the longer they are home or as more come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Psychologists and others who treat members of the armed services say that like depression, PTSD will need to be treated with counseling, medication or both. (A new GAO report found that military procedures for helping returning soldiers at risk of PTSD are seriously flawed, with almost 80 percent of those found to be at risk of the disorder never receiving referrals for further help. The Pentagon, however, says the report is flawed and most soldiers do get help.)

CBC Naval Center has hired a combat stress counselor to start a pilot program working with returning soldiers who are experiencing PTSD. The counselor works with soldiers not only after a deployment, but before and during the deployment. "We feel the program is really helping our people to better adjust to a combat situation, both before they deploy and once they get home," says Scurfield, "It's a good program."

Smoothing the Transition: Recognize Children's Changing Needs
Military parents that are coming home from the war have missed many special moments in their children's lives. They may be anxious to reconnect, and hoping for an immediate return to the kind of relationship with their child or children they had before leaving.

But for the children themselves, there is no going back. Their lives changed overnight when their parent was deployed, and now they are changing again. They themselves have changed, and they have different expectations.

The transition can be rough. Take the case of a family with pre-teen or teenage children. Having gotten used to negotiating issues like homework, bedtime, and social rules with one parent, they may not be ready to hear what the returning parent has to say. Scurfield recommends that teens and pre-teens be given time, just like the parents need time. "The most important thing is to respect the teenager's privacy and friends. Encourage them to share their feelings and the homecoming parent should share the experience they have had. This will open the door for communication." She adds, "Some teens may feel guilty because they don't feel they have met the expectations of the parent. Talk to your children, but expect rebellion."

Younger children, especially newborns and toddlers, will face different issues. Some bases employ parent support specialists who help the homecoming parent learn how to nurture, hold, bond with and feed an infant that was born in their absence. For toddlers, "Realize that they have changed, just like the parent has changed. Don't be upset if they are afraid of you when you first come home," says Scurfield. "Get down on their level and play with them, spend time with them, talk to them. Time is what matters and what they will understand the best."

Re-establishing a relationship with a child is not a simple task. According to the Department of Defense and The National Center for PTSD the following are some tips to help the families that are facing the reconnection process;

1. Allow one-on-one time with each member of the family. It is hard to find out what someone is feeling when so many others are clamoring for attention. The parent that has come home needs to spend time with his/her spouse and each child in an individual setting. Go to the park, go shopping, and take your wife, daughter or son out to lunch. Communicate with them if the opportunity arises. Listen to what they say. Ask questions about their activities, their friends and their feelings. Answer questions asked of you in an honest and age-appropriate manner.

2. Spend time as a family. Whether it's going out to eat, watching a movie or having a barbeque in the back yard, spending time as a family is important to children. It helps them to feel they are in a stable and loving environment and that the parent coming home from the war is comfortable being with them.

3. Support your children by going to extra-curricular activities. Whether it's rooting for your son at his baseball game or watching your daughter star in the church play, your attendance at the special events in your children's lives boosts his/her confidence in not only you, but also in themselves.

4. Continue with routines that the family is familiar with. If the children have picked up extra chores during a parent's absence, they may resent you putting an immediate stop to them. Ask them how they feel about the delegation of responsibilities and take their feelings into consideration when making any changes.

5. Help other families whose loved ones are still deployed. This gives your family a way to channel energy in another direction, instead of constantly concentrating on what is happening in your own home. This will also teach your children the importance of helping others.

6. Seek counseling, both individually and as a family. When a soldier comes home from war, the military automatically performs a psychological exam. Be sure to follow any recommendations that stem from that exam. Take advantage of the booklets given to you during out-processing that contain resources for where your family can receive support. If your spouse or children are in need of counseling, contact the Family Support Center where you are stationed or ask the Commander of your company to refer you to someone. You can also contact the Veteran's Administration in your area for counseling or referrals.

7. Take advantage of military outreach programs and other military support groups. Outreach programs are specifically in place to help military families prevent social isolation. These programs offer trained group leaders who can help in the entire process of deployment-from being shipped overseas to planning a family reunion. The Army also has Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) that are groups of volunteers that can provide social and emotional support to military families. To find an FRG in your area you can contact your unit commander or call the Army-wide Family Liaison office toll-free at 1-800-833-6622.

8. Go online to find support groups or military websites that can offer further help and information. Websites such as The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome or www.MarineParents.com offer information and advice for families that have loved ones being deployed to Iraq, whom are in Iraq or are coming home from Iraq. There is also a new website that has just come up at www.VAJoe.com that offers great information for military families on everything from medical care to family support.

The reconnection process that a military family goes through upon the return of a loved one is emotional and demanding. However, Scurfield feels that military families that have successfully negotiated its demands are some of the strongest families in America. "The family needs to remember that patience is the one point that will help the family during this time. Both the soldier and their family need to realize that changes have taken place... Take time to learn one another again. Be patient and understanding and take it one day at a time. The family will reconnect and come out that much stronger for the experience."

Freelance writer Rebecca Freshour lives in Mississippi with her husband David and son Caleb.