Reintegration: It’s More Than “Coming Home”
–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?
(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.