Some of my favorite video clips are those of service members being reunited with their loved ones. After long and stressful deployments, military families hope to settle back into a normal routine and reconnect with their spouses and children.
Unfortunately, the return home isn't always followed by a smooth, happily-ever-after transition. Research now confirms how tough deployments and multiple deployments (sometimes back-to-back) can be on families.
Those hit the hardest are often the spouses and children left behind. We now have a better understanding of how deployments affect the whole family and the risks of developing deployment stress.
Unfortunately, with ongoing wars, this condition is expected to continue.
What is Deployment Stress?
Deployment stress occurs when military members and their families prepare for an extended absence of the enlisted family member. There are different stages of the deployment process, and each stage brings its own unique challenges.
Deployment stress can begin months before actual deployment. Just the preparations alone can spark feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, and sometimes anger. Since deployments can be unpredictable, the likelihood of service dates changing or being extended is always a looming possibility. "Hurry up and wait", is an expression military personnel know well.
Loneliness can ensue, especially if the deployment is during the holidays. The deployed spouse may miss important family celebrations or milestones of their young children. If the deployment is to a different time zone halfway around the world, communication becomes difficult. The deployed spouse may return injured or suffer from PTSD.
Children Left Behind
With military children already being at risk of developing a mental health condition, the added stress of deployment can leave them more vulnerable. Psychiatric diagnosis and the use of prescription medications are higher for children in military families—especially for younger children who cannot fully comprehend the absence.
Children may become distracted in school or start to act out and get into fights. They may attempt to get away with more when one parent is gone. Children may start to show signs of depression beyond normal sadness. If you notice your child suffering, there is help available. Check with your child's school counselors and teachers. They can observe and note any changes in behavior or difficulties the child may be having.
A recent study revealed how deployment stress affects military spouses. According to research, “deployment stress can cause and exacerbate certain mental health problems in military partners, including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.”
The mental health of military spouses is becoming more of a concern as it is better understood. This study provides further evidence that deployments affect the whole family. And since more than half of all 3.6 million active military personnel are married, it's not surprising that the evidence has become more prevalent.
During deployment, the spouse may feel like a single parent and take on all the added stress of daily household management, finances, and childcare. The study notes an increase in binge drinking among military spouses. This may represent poor coping skills during their loved one's deployment. If a spouse already suffers from anxiety, the added pressures of deployment stress may become too much to handle.
In Their Own Words
I asked a few friends (both military wives) for their first-hand experience combating deployment stress. Bree, an army wife, told me she coped by finding a community to be part of—roller derby and women's groups at church. "The stronger my relationships were with other women, the healthier I was all around," shared Bree.
Her husband was deployed to war zones and for overseas training. He went to Afghanistan twice and Germany twice for training. She said that each time he left it seemed the contact was less frequent. "It seemed easier for him to just deal with what he was doing there and not focus on missing us or home."
Michelle's husband is a Marine and frequently deploys for missions as well as training with his unit. She said at one point he was gone all the time and things got rocky for a while. She began having panic attacks and needed to take medication and seek short-term counseling.
"My husband frequently tells me I'm the hero of the family and says he couldn't do what he does without our support," said Michelle. She smiles when she talks about the flowers he sends her when he's gone. "Military life definitely isn't for everyone. You have to take the time and make it a priority to reconnect with each other."
During his last deployment, Michelle and her husband started planning a family vacation for when he returned, and that helped ease the separation anxiety.
Michelle also credits her military mom's support groups. They lean on each other and assemble care packages for deployed community members. They also plan lunch outings or coffee dates. "We should not forget the important sacrifices military family members also make so their spouses can serve," Michelle added.
All military families are at risk of experiencing deployment stress. Good communication is key as well as understanding that there will be an adjustment period when the spouse returns home. Support groups or even individual support from a counselor can be helpful when coping with stress.
Make time as a couple to process through the deployment and plan some special events or date nights together. Families cope in different ways, and it's important to find what works for your family. Children should be allowed to freely express their feelings around the deployment as well.