War is a horrific experience. Even the most patriotic, mission driven and idealistic military men and women can become profoundly traumatized by it. The emotional toll on deployed individuals and their families is life altering. Even those who return from war bodily unharmed are emotionally transformed for life.
The nation witnesses loss of life and limb, but rarely comprehends the loss to the lives of returning soldiers and their families. It all starts with the pain of separation. Families are ripped apart when a soldier must leave the family and be absent for an extended period of time.
Separation is the first loss. Lovers are left yearning for the life they have known, children are bewildered and grieve for the absent parent, and partners must adjust to loneliness and expanded responsibilities. An empty seat at the table, a role unfulfilled and the aching heart impacts all members of the military family when their loved one is deployed.
The loneliness, emptiness, and sense of overwhelm are compounded by a piercing and deep fear. Both the soldier and the family members worry that their parting touch may have been their last. This panic is secretly held, masked by words of hope about the anticipated reunion and the resumption of their lives and love.
The remaining family has to restructure itself with one less major contributor. The newly “ single parent” has suddenly become the sole head of the household and both a mother and a father to the children. Military families living on base learn to rely on each other for support.
The longer the soldier is away, the more independent the remaining partner becomes and the more attached the children are to the present parent. The new – found strength and resiliency borne of necessity, responsibility, fears and isolation redefine the nature of the recreated family structure.
When the deployed mate returns, the readjustment to the family is difficult, gradual and sometimes traumatic. To begin to understand the emotional challenge of the soldier -imagine trying to shake a nightmare terror that keeps recurring. The sights, sounds and smells of war are haunting memories that may last for years, if not for a lifetime. The combat survivor is often irritable, guarded and needs time alone to process the past before embarking on embracing the present.
According to a Pentagon study nearly one in 10 American soldiers who served in Iraq was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, most after participating in combat and witnessing death. This disorder involves the reenactment of traumatic events, anxiety, nightmares, and flashbacks and may lead to delusional thinking. It can contribute to family strife, alcohol and substance abuse, unemployment and divorce. Dr. Charles Hoge, A researcher and colonel at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found that many of the soldiers were reluctant to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental illness.
The welcoming of the veteran to the family is initially joyous, yet becomes extremely difficult. The at-home parent has created an emotional steel circle with the children for safety, security and stability. Opening the circle to re-include the returned veteran feels to some emotionally risky. The self-sufficiency, born out of necessity and compounded by anger about abandonment, sometimes overshadows the need to restore the family to its original state. Fights and dissonance often plague reunited families. A recent Defense Department Study, reported by Janet Shamlian on NBC news, found that “one year after deployment one in five married soldiers plans to separate or divorce”.
Much of the hardships families face during their separation and after re-unification are managed solely by the couple. The military is aware of the challenges soldiers, veterans of war and their families experience. Some publications, services and information on CD and on the web are available to assist families.
If you are a military family whose loved one has been or is about to be deployed, please read “The Emotional Cycles of Deployment – A Military Family Perspective.” This article describes the seven stages of emotional deployment and lists additional sources of help for families.
• Avail yourself to the caring and assistance of neighbors, friends, family and others in your situation.
• Seek professional help by a therapist specializing in military families throughout the stages of deployment.
• Upon the return of the deployed soldier, undertake couple’s therapy and assistance in the personal adjustment of the service person.
• With proper support, time and professional guidance you can reformulate your relationship and re-establish a loving and happy union.