Thanksgiving is coming and I have many milestones behind me and people in my life to be thankful for. At the top of the pile of thankful events is the deployment phase of this journey is coming to a close. K is on the way home from Afghanistan as I write. Getting home for him is like planes, trains, and automobiles…or maybe more like camels, helicopters, and cargo planes. Needless to say, it’s a long trip. I know he is thankful to be making it no matter how convoluted and drawn out it is. Every leg of the trip is one step closer to a real bed, good food, green grass, and an internet connection that works all the time.
When people hear that K’s coming home, inevitably the first thing they say to me is, “You must be so excited!” I never know how to respond without looking like a complete ass. Sure, I’m relieved that he’s coming back in one piece. Beyond that, I’m cautiously optimistic. Last time K returned from a deployment it did not go well and continued to not go well for quite some time. Some of that was thanks to the Army’s lack of support for returning soldiers at the time, some was due to my inexperience and inflated expectations, and some was due to how K was handling his return—or not handling his return—and all the issues inherent in that. It was sort of a perfect crap storm. We hope with the knowledge from past experience, this time will be better or at the very least, shorter.
The return from deployment is the hardest part of this cycle for both the soldier and the family. Unlike what the general population may like to think, it’s not like the world is suddenly righted when a soldier comes home. There’s no burst of sunlight through the clouds, nor do unicorns frolic in and out of a double rainbow—although that would be novel. A typical year brings with it all kinds of natural changes. Kids get taller and more mature, rules change, new routines are established, and challenges are overcome. In the case of military families, new bonds are forged with the people you come to rely on, whether it be at home or in a war zone, soldiers experience the stress of combat and homesickness, and families struggle to maintain some sort of normalcy and spouses manage single-parenting logistics ad nauseam. Those extra layers of change are the most effecting. You learn a lot about yourself—your limitations, strengths, tolerances, priorities. The complication comes in when you try to reestablish your life as a family the way it used to be before the deployment. Life does not go back to “normal” after a year apart. To think it will is certainly optimistic, but definitely not realistic. You have to establish something new or at the very least, different.
Creating anything new takes work—and a whole lot of it. The problem in the case of forming a new post-deployment life is that it’s being taken on by mentally and physically exhausted people who really don’t have the luxury of rest because life is not stopping while they gather themselves. You can imagine that sometimes it’s a bit like watching a drunk person try to navigate a corn maze. Sometimes they make a lucky turn and other times they fall down on their ass and wonder which direction is up. Eventually they get through it, but it takes a long time and many run-ins with dead ends. Much like not being able to catch up on sleep when you have been sleep deprived, you can’t really catch up on a year apart even when you do your best to communicate. There will always be a swath of events, inside jokes, and stories that you will not have in common and can only hear about so many times before you feel like an outsider. The soldier doesn’t really understand what the spouse goes through and the spouse certainly does not know what the soldier goes through (unless they have served as well). I call it the Immutable Law of Forced Distance Over Time. I’m sure some would argue that soldiers have it worse than those left at home, but those same people are probably not the ones who are left behind. Personally, I believe the hardships are borne like church and state: separate but equal. I can promise that if couples start trying to pick apart who had it worse, resentment will flourish like goldenrod in Fall. Understanding that it wasn’t easy for anyone is probably the best stance to take no matter which side of the equation you are on.
Is there a magic trick or secret for a successful post deployment life? If I knew the answer to that, the book would be written, and I’d be a bit richer not to mention in a completely different frame of mind. Every couple’s relationship is different and some weather these times better than others. I also know not just from experience, but from seeing other military couples go through the same thing that people underestimate the force, frequency, and duration of the ripples a deployment can cause even in the steadiest of relationships and inevitably it takes them by surprise. Like I said, I cannot offer answers because I don’t have any—nor do I believe that the techniques used in one relationship’s success translates into success in another’s, but I think the best thing for anyone dealing with life after deployment is to dig deep and find the extra patience and compassion it takes to get through each day until that new life kicks in. Soldiers need to accept that life at home went on because that’s what it does and you can’t just reinsert yourself and think that will work, and spouses need to understand that coming home is not just culture shock, but a completely different mindset to adjust to that goes way beyond coming home at the end of the day from work. Being in the military is a 24/7 lifestyle and not a 9-5 job. Both need to recognize that shifting gears is not easy and that somewhere there is still common ground to stand on. You just have to find it and go from there.
Beyond those general insights into what life post-deployment is like, I would like to offer a piece or two of advice to people welcoming home soldiers. First, please try not to say things like, “You must be glad/happy/overjoyed to be home!” That is a given. Wouldn’t you rather be home than being shot at in the mountains of Afghanistan or the sands of Iraq? You could just say you are happy they are home, or ask how they are like you would anyone else. Letting soldiers know they are appreciated and that you care about them is fantastic and important, but please don’t ask if they will have to go back again soon. Let them enjoy being home. And don’t ask their spouses that question either. We don’t care to think about doing this again anymore than the soldiers do. In many cases—especially in the Guard—the answer is either “Not at all” or “Not for a while” anyway. If they will be leaving again in the future, you will hear about it when the time is right. Instead, you might want to ask if they have special plans now that they are back or something to look forward to like a vacation or new job. Just remember that soldiers are not sideshows and you should be fine.
When K gets home, we plan on being as low-key as humanly possible for a bit. It’s thisclose to Winter up here and the instinct to hibernate is pretty strong as it is, but wanting to simply adjust to being civilians again will be even stronger. We will be having a quiet Christmas with the kids and will get around to visiting family and friends once K has had time to work through the 8.5 hour time difference and remember that every other word he says doesn’t need to start with “F.” We are incredibly grateful to everyone who has helped us get through this year whether you sent care packages, watched the kids, or just listened to us when we needed an ear. Your contribution to making the last several months bearable will not be forgotten, I promise. We count ourselves lucky to have such understanding and loving friends and family and we hope you know that we are happy to return the favor. We are thankful for you.
In closing, I know I haven’t been around here much and I apologize. My absence is due in part to just being busy with the kids, my freelance work, and various obligations. The other reason I’ve been away is because many of you who read this know me and K in real life, and honestly, it would be easier to write about some of the bumps we experience if you didn’t know us. Anonymity ensures that social gatherings aren’t awkward. I’ve been struggling with what to write quite a bit because we are fairly private people. Do I believe it’s good for civilians to get a glimpse into the realities of military life so they can see the extent of what gets sacrificed? Most assuredly, yes. Am I ready to lay everything out there in detail? Apparently not. And I’m sure K is not ready for that either and I respect his position on the topic. I’m still in the middle of it, and as much as I try to be level-headed and objective about how the deployments have effected us and the kids, it is tough to put a positive spin on it all the time as I had intended. There are days when the deployment and all that goes with it just flat out sucks and there’s not much more to say. I think I’ve probably mentioned before that I’m not the most positive person in the universe, but I’m working on improving my outlook every day because I refuse to lug around the anger I was left with last time we did this. In any event, I appreciate having readers at all. I’m grateful that you enjoy my writing and care about what happens. Like the deployment itself, keeping this blog has been a learning experience for me. I’m not giving up on it, so please bear with me in the coming year as I figure out the best angle to approach it from. In the meantime, have a lovely Thanksgiving!