Coping with deployment separation

by James W. Cartwright
U.S. Army Public Health Command

Separation from a loved one who is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan can be an emotionally difficult time for all family members. The emotions can vary from low energy levels, feelings of sadness, anger, excitement, restlessness, tension, frustration, resentment and depression. Additionally, there are many challenges for military families to overcome during deployments. It is important to recognize and understand these challenges in order to effectively cope with the separation during deployment.

An important challenge for Soldiers and family members is to avoid the pitfalls often associated with deployments. A common pitfall is arguments prior to deployment. These arguments are generally the result of distress due to the upcoming separation. Realize this distress and try not to take these arguments too seriously. Another pitfall is failure to discuss expectations regarding child-rearing, financial management, or intimacy concerns — these issues sometimes can be a source of misperception, distortion and hurt later during deployment. Soldiers and spouses attempting to resolve these major pitfalls via long distance are often not successful.

Another pitfall is listening to or speaking rumors. It is best not to repeat the rumor. Because of rapid communication, rumors can spread unchecked. For example, one Family Readiness Group member passing on allegations of infidelity about another group member can cause a great deal of psychological damage to individuals identified in the rumor. Such rumors also cause harm to Soldiers, family members, FRG members and unit cohesion. Avoiding these pitfalls will ensure that the stress related to deployment separation will be much more manageable.

Another challenge is to recognize the deployment-related stressors that will impact the Soldier and family during separation and then develop strategies to cope with these stressors. To help minimize the impact of deployment-related stress, the Soldier and family member(s) can do the following.

Tips for couples
• Discuss expectations for managing finances, children and personal conduct before deployment.

• Expect changes in departure and return dates.

• Accept growth and change in all family members.

• Reserve disagreements for face-to-face encounters with your spouse.

• Put existing and unresolved marital issues on hold until the Soldier returns home.

• Communicate regularly and creatively with your Soldier. End communications on a positive note.

• Keep the Soldier’s parents informed and give mutual support.

Tips for parents
• Establish and maintain supports that help the family cope.

• Plan for family stress relievers like fun outings and get-togethers.

• Plan opportunities for the at-home parent to get breaks from the children to revive emotionally and physically.

• Encourage family members to share feelings and give assurances.

• Honestly discuss the Soldier’s deployment. Share information about the Soldier’s work and what the parent is doing for our country.

• Answer questions openly and honestly, using words your children can understand.
• Provide a calendar or some measure to help your child count the days the parent has been deployed.

• Maintain a structured and safe emotional and physical environment for your children.

• Make sure the deployed parent is part of everyday conversations.

• Help your children sort out what they hear and see in news reports.

• Find out what your children know and understand and talk with them about their feelings. Follow your child’s lead. Give a small piece of information at a time and see how your child responds before deciding what to do next.

• Provide your children with a method to communicate to the deployed parent, such as letter writing or e-mail access. Make it creative and fun.

• Maintain family routines and traditions during the other parent’s absence.

• Keep children involved with outside activities and maintain communications with schools.

The bottom line is that the Soldiers and family members need to remain calm, go slow, stay informed and stay involved to cope during these challenges. An excellent source of help during this time is the unit’s Family Readiness Group.