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May 6, 2011

13

Reintegration: It’s More Than “Coming Home”

by K. Tsetsi

–Guest Post by Lora

Recently a new television show premiered on Lifetime. You’ve probably heard of it–it’s called Coming Home. It’s a tear-jerking hour of military family reunions.

I’ve only watched it once. That was all I could handle.

Reunions are wonderful, don’t get me wrong. After spending months, a year, or more apart, military families have certainly earned these moments of pure joy and indescribable relief when they first feel their soldier alive and well in their arms. It is a moment that cannot be described. Only felt. Perhaps that is the draw of the show, to give the majority of Americans with no military ties whatsoever the opportunity to catch some small glimpse of that raw,
deep, personal emotion. And it makes people feel good.

That moment, however, is just that. A moment. Oversimplified. It’s not all there is to it. It’s not the end of the story. In reality, the moment is only the beginning of a much bigger story. One military families must get through without the fanfare, flags, and cheering crowds. A story that is often difficult, full of unexpected twists and turns, great highs and great lows. A story with a course as variable as the families living it, and about which I think the majority of Americans have very little understanding.

The deployment doesn’t end there in that beautiful reunion.

When my husband deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, I myself had no way of understanding what homecoming would mean to us. I had no perspective, I had nothing in my life to draw from that could prepare me. I thought only of the hugs and happy tears. I thought for twelve months only of that singular moment, with no real consideration for the after. The miracle, I thought, was in the homecoming. The Happily-Ever-After-Thank-God-He’s-Alive-I-Can’t-Believe-We-Made-It-Through-A-Year-Apart Moment was all I cared about.

“Reintegration” was simply not a word in my vocabulary.

He came home. Everyone was happy. We were a family again. Life could go back to normal. Right?

…….Right?

(If you answered “wrong,” odds are you yourself are a military spouse with more than one deployment under your belt.)

The reality is that reintegration after a deployment is the most challenging, treacherous, under-appreciated and under-acknowledged phase of the deployment cycle when it comes to military families. You can’t go over it. You can’t go around it. You’ve got to go through it. And sadly, for many military families, a casualty of this particular phase of the deployment is all too often the family unit itself.

Why, you might ask yourself, could a family make it through the experience of war, the stress of separation and the constant anxiety of possible permanent separation by death, only to fall apart when they are finally together again?

The answers to that may be as different as the individuals, but there is certainly a common thread. Perhaps a lot of people out there in the civilian world think “Oh, well, the soldiers all come back with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. They beat their wives and children. They don’t want to get help. It’s a recipe for disaster!” And perhaps that is true in a small number of cases. Largely, though, I believe it comes down to simpler, less dramatic truth.

The truth is the separation itself puts great strain on all the relationships involved regardless of what capacity the soldier served in while overseas. Regardless of whether they saw combat, or experienced an event that was physically or mentally harmful, regardless of the branch in which they serve. The deployment pushes and pulls us to our limits and affects every relationship. Husband/Wife. Father/Child. Mother/child. Sibling/Sibling. The strain leaves all of these relationships altered. When the soldier returns home, all of these relationships have to be renegotiated. Problems often arise because the individuals attempting to negotiate with one another…actually don’t know each other all that well, anymore. In its simplest form, this could be seen in my husband’s relationship with our youngest. Only 8 weeks old when Daddy left, but 14 months old when he returned. They had to literally get to know each other all over again. Our baby had changed substantially, both physically and emotionally, during the deployment.

While the changes are not as visible, they still took place with each individual in our family. And the reintegration process is not just between the one who left and the ones who were left behind. All of us who were left behind have to renegotiate with each other as well upon our soldier’s return. Things don’t work the same with a “single” parent as they do with two. Older kids aren’t sure where they fit in the family hierarchy. Younger kids have to test limits and see if that parent they spent the last 12 months with alone is really still paying attention. No one is quite sure how things are supposed to work. We are changed not just by a year of learning and growing, but by a year of living without an essential cog in our family wheel.

With a deployment, You get by at first. Then You adjust. Then You change. Now…where does that missing cog go when it miraculously reappears? How do you find its place?

How is that soldier supposed to feel when the family he has been missing and dreaming of returning to seems to be a synchronized unit functioning just fine without him?

Families need as much, if not more, support during the reintegration period as they did to get through the deployment. I have noticed in my personal experience there is a great “backing off” of friends and neighbors when my husband returns home. I realized the other night I haven’t seen or spoken with any of the Moms in my neighborhood who I saw and hung out with regularly during the deployment since my husband got home. My phone has barely rung. I am positively certain that this behavior is only out of concern not to “bug” us or to take away from our family time. And I understand that is a reasonable assumption. But I am here to tell you that we still need a phone call to see how we are doing. We could still use an invitation out to the park.

While we muddle through the feelings of disconnect and reconnecting with our spouses, we still need that support system that helped us survive the deployment. Small gestures like an offer to watch the kids for a couple hours, or to bring over a dinner, will still mean the world to us and our whole family.

We were incredibly fortunate that my Mother In-Iaw offered to come out and watch the kids for several days to allow us to get away as a couple within the first month of my husband’s return. However, I know a lot of extended families want to just come visit their soldier, because after all, they have missed him, too. But in reality, the last thing that family unit needs during this incredibly difficult time is to have to play “host” to anyone. If extended family is going to come visit, every effort should be made to turn that time not in to just a vacation, but in to a time to provide support to their soldier’s nuclear family. This should include time for the couple to get away on their own, and time for individual children to spend with the recently returned parent alone while grandparents, aunts and uncles or whoever might be visiting provides the other children with a lot of attention and love.

This deployment, the older, wiser me knew to expect challenges with our homecoming. Did this mean everything went smoothly and perfectly? Absolutely not. He still felt he had no place here. I still felt crowded. We still had to go through (and still are going through) our own reintegration cycle. The process can take up to 7 months before a true state of “new normal” is achieved. It takes time, effort, patience, and understanding. And plenty of support.

The next time you come across a military family anticipating a reunion or going through reintegration, instead of the typical “You must be SO excited!” or “I bet you are SO happy he’s home!” I hope you will be inclined to ask sincerely, “How are you doing?”, “How are things going?” or “Is there anything I can do for your family?”

Trust me. Those are the questions we need to hear. The miracle, after all, is not the joyous homecoming. It’s finding the resiliency and the strength to keep our families together afterward.

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 6 2011

    Oh… the “reintegration blues” Taking down the wall that we build up – but not all the way, because we have another deployment on the horizon. Our friends and relatives think that “he’s home, time to ride off in the pink sunset, farting rainbows and fairy dust”. Not so much.

    Reply
    • May 6 2011

      “Farting rainbows” LOL! I had someone ask me yesterday how things were going and when I said fine, just busy and stressful they literally said “I thought everything was all better once they came home.” Yeah…no.

      Reply
  2. Andrea
    May 6 2011

    I’d like to know where you got the 7 months rule? I believe the after effects of deployment can be longer than that. Maybe it is the multitude of deployments we have been through, maybe it is the fact that they were often rapid. I am not sure but I do know that there are somethings that are life and lifetime changing.

    Karen- Amen

    Reply
  3. May 6 2011

    I love it & AMEN!! I was so naive our first Deployment & had no idea that after he was home the “real” test would come of our marriage. I always have a love/hate relationship with reunions now. I am so happy for my soldier , the kids, his extended family, but I am always holding my breath. I know after a couple days- reality will come crashing down. Thanks for putting it out there, that you still need a support system just as much after they are home as you did while he was away.

    Andrea- I think Lora was using the 7 month mark as a reference from her own experience. I know for me now having gone through 3 deployments- about 6 to 8 months is our readjustment time frame. Some things never go back to the way they where – we have create a new family structure. This time as we prepare for deployment #4 we have just hit our stride & he has been home 12 months only to be leaving again soon.

    Maybe multiple deployments that are back to back take a little longer to adjust back to “normal” whatever that may be for your family.This time as soon as he told me of another deployment we where only enjoying 6 months of having him home. I think I mentally disconnected right then & there – because let’s face it what was the point of getting use to relying on him again ?? He was only going to have to leave again & make it that much harder to readjust. Bad attitude I know & I have tried to readjust, but it is a daily struggle

    Thanks for the great Post Lora & Happy Military Appreciation Day to all the Spouses who Serve Too..

    Reply
    • May 6 2011

      Thank you.

      You definitely have to re-create your family after each deployment. I wish I had thought to use that term in this post, because it describes the process perfectly.

      And I understand disconnecting. It’s self-preservation at a certain level. My thoughts and prayers are with you during this 4th deployment.

      Reply
  4. May 6 2011

    Lora,

    Thanks for this. It IS the length of separation that has been the hardest for us to navigate. A year after the third deployment (at 15 months) we arrived at a “new normal.”

    Then we got bored. 🙂

    Two of our kids were born while my husband was deployed. It has been amazing to watch their relationships grow over time.

    Another challenge of reintegration (especially in our really tight-knit unit overseas) was letting go of the super-strong friendships I made with other wives over the deployment. I grieved the change, even though I was glad my husband was home. And then everyone scattered in PCS. Um, closure? Nope.

    Next time, I’ll grieve in advance before he arrives. Might be more efficient. 🙂

    @ Amanda: Please don’t label your attitude as “bad.” Your reaction sounds pretty normal to me! Sometimes we short circuit our emotions because we think we shouldn’t feel a certain way about the $%#@ that happens in (military) life. Own them. They’re real.

    Reply
  5. May 6 2011

    Wow, Lora, what a well-written article!! As a former military officer and current military spouse, I am thankful for the perspective that you’ve presented – through your own personal story – and also on behalf of military families everywhere.

    Reply
  6. Kerri M
    May 8 2011

    thank you for this. I’m 2 months into my first deployment and having my own issues learning how to be a single parent. Daddy calls almost every day, but it some ways that makes it harder, but that is probably another topic. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel but I’m guessing it isn’t what I’m feeling right now.

    I honestly can’t even think about R&R right now, much less reintegration

    Reply
  7. Corina
    Jun 15 2011

    Lora, Thank you so much for writing this. My soldier is returning home in less than a month from our first deployment and I’ve been incredibly nervous. I’ve gotten so used to my routine that it’ll be hard to “figure out where the cog fits” again. Before this article I couldn’t put it into words without sounding like I didn’t want him to come back, which is absolutely not the case. I know our reunion will not be the movie ending or “coming home” surprise, and this article helps me feel like I’m not alone and not crazy, not to mention that there is light at the end of yet another tunnel. 😉

    Reply
  8. Peggy
    Feb 27 2012

    Where do I begin with this? First, thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. My husband returned home in mid August. As did my son-in-law, who decided 4 weeks before homecoming, he didn’t want to be married to my step daughter anymore. My husband came home to his daughter’s life falling apart. She and my granddaughter were still living with me. What a mess.

    My husband and I went through our tug of war. We’re in our 40’s and this wasn’t our first deployment. But he still had to be patient with me as I went from taking care of everything to sharing the load and he had to realize that I wadn’t one of his soldiers and the army way doesn’t go over big with me.

    This takes time. What we had in our favor was an agreed upon project which we started as soon as he came off active duty status: new tile flooring in our kitchen. Having a project to look forward to after the homecoming kisses really helped.

    My SIL and step daughter decided to work on their marriage. They’re young and before deployment lived in the fantasy of playing house. Deployment burst that wide open. They still live in my house. I’m ready for them to move forward with my safety net.

    Reply
  9. Apr 17 2012

    Hi Lora,
    It’s me again! This just reposted on my FB page and I came back to read through the article again. I am super excited to say we are down to just a few weeks until my husband makes it home from his fourth deployment. Once again there are no delusions on my part that a lot of hard work lies ahead . Re-reading your article just reminded me that I get to have the happy for about two weeks- then the real work begins! Thankfully I took some advice got my parents on board & we will have them watching our four boys for 7 nights while we escape. We are calling it our “re-connecting & finding us again” vacation. We haven’t had one in 17 years! Super excited & hope it helps make this reintegration process a little smoother.

    Reply

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