Your family has been anticipating this day since forever, and finally, your soldier’s deployment is coming to an end. Much time may have passed, and while many things have stayed the same, others have surely changed. Your children may have been born or gotten older. You may have gone back to work, or changed your appearance. And of course, your soldier has been through so much more. Preparing yourself and your family for the big day and what comes after will require more than simply hanging up a banner and baking a cake. Every military family is different, but most will benefit from these homecoming tips.
Let go of the small stuff
Writer of the “Marine Wife, Mommy and Life” blog, Jennifer Butta, welcomed her husband, Alex, back after his third deployment in Afghanistan, where he was stationed for eight months. “That last homecoming was a complete and utter disaster,” she says. “We were planning for one day and it got rescheduled for another. Then, it got changed from daytime to an 11 p.m. arrival. Unending delays meant having the kids in bed asleep, with no photo opportunities and no big homecoming dinner, like I had done in the past,” she says. Butta’s bottom line was not to worry about the bells and whistles of the big day and instead, to focus on the big picture. “Your soldier’s arrival may be giving you both goose bumps of happiness, anticipation and even a bit of worry. What he or she probably needs most upon arrival is sleep. Sure, huge welcome homes are great, but don’t sweat the details of the actual event,” she suggests.
Hold onto the important stuff
You may be surprised by some of the stresses you will all feel once your soldier is back at home. All of you may have changed during deployment. Your soldier may have experienced tremendous emotional turmoil while serving and returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder. He or she may also have injuries which may impact them, and you, forever. Such was the case for Doug Vitale, a Marine infantry rifleman who returned from Afghanistan’s Helmand Province with a severe brain injury and the loss of both legs.
“What was so horrible about it in the beginning, was how I found out,” says Doug’s wife, Alexis. “All I got was a one-sentence phone call with very spotty information, telling me my husband had been injured, because saving Doug’s life, not communicating with me, was the priority. Every battalion has a corps man and I would hear from him every day, but it wasn’t until the third day that my mom, who is a nurse and able to read Doug’s chart, saw that he had a brain injury. It’s the lack of information that makes those first few days hard,” she says.
Whether your soldier comes home with a significant injury or not, your adjustment as a family may be challenging. Kids have gotten older and at-home routines like getting ready for school or doing homework may have shifted. “Sometimes when your soldier comes home, they’re no longer family-oriented and may appear distant. Other times, it’s the at-home spouse that has issues and is distant with their military member, or having trouble switching from independence to becoming a team again,” says Butta.
One strategy she employed was focusing on the time they now had together instead of dwelling on the time they had spent apart. “It was emotional, because Alex missed birthdays and holidays, but you can’t go backwards and are better off experiencing what’s happening now, since those at home are already past those time frames.” Butta would leave a few, emotionally significant things up for each holiday Alex missed, so he could see them in person, such as a small, tabletop Christmas tree decorated with a ribbon, combat helmet ornament and red white and blue garland. She also left pictures their sons drew for Easter and the 4th of July on the fridge. Not trying to cram past events into each new day helped the family earmark the time spent apart respectfully, without putting undue stress on any one family member.
Other coping mechanisms families use successfully include:
- Give yourselves time to become reacquainted and don’t worry if there is some awkwardness at first.
- Understand that your soldier has been through a rough time and give him or her time, sleep and enough space to heal.
- Understand you also need time to adjust to your life together now as a couple, and acknowledge that you may sometimes feel a wide range of unexpected emotions.
- Don’t panic if your sex life does not sizzle at first.
- Create new, revamped routines that are reassuring for everyone, including your children.
- Remember you’re a team and that you no longer need to make every decision about day-to-day life solo.
- Respect that you both may have changed, but the reasons you became a family have not.
You may feel relief, happiness, sorrow, fear, worry, anxiety or all of the above after your loved one comes home. The military community, friends and family are all vital support systems you can depend upon while you’re adjusting to your life together again, as it exists now. “My mom and dad, Doug’s family and our best friends all banded together to help us,” says Vitale. “They were the shoulders we leaned on and supported us by taking care of the small details, like feeding the dogs. They enabled me to put one foot in front of the other, even though I had no idea what I was doing. As Doug has improved and our lives have taken on a routine, they continue to be there for us,” she adds. The Vitales also relied upon organizations such as the Semper Fi Fund, Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and Wheels for Warriors to support them both with reentry planning and financial support.
The Buttas benefited greatly from the support they received from Marine Corps Family Team Building. “Each unit has a Family Readiness Officer. He or she plays a huge part in the lives of the military families that are taking care of the home front while the troops are away. They put together programs and courses for the reuniting families and at-home spouses to help them get back in the swing of things, particularly if there are issues like PTSD. They help families work together to figure out a new routine and support them through the changes that happen when they come home,” says Butta.
Your soldier was the one deployed, but your entire family has served and sacrificed. The much-awaited homecoming may be bittersweet, or filled with an unexpected roller coaster of emotions. Your soldier may still be on active duty or medically retired. No matter what the future has in store, be proud and respectful of each other and your sacrifice, and continue to rely upon your community and family for support during this time.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.