Deployment Survival 101

Today one of my high school classmates posted a status asking for advice on how to get through her first deployment as a significant other. That inspired this post! I’ve only been through one, but I was one of those odd ball people that didn’t think it was that bad. Well, it was tough, but I didn’t spend every other night crying, nor did I lock myself in my room for a year. I made the best of it, and I think that helped both my husband and I get through it much better off. Here are my tips for surviving a deployment, and not just surviving it, but surviving it with hope, laughter, and perseverance! You’ll notice “Husband Tips” that came from my husband when I told him about the post. Note that every soldier is different, so many of these are dependent on your soldier’s personality. Also, I’m going to refer to the soldier as a male, but HOORAH to all of our female soldiers and their guys holding down the fort!

DO send care packages often, and have fun with it! (Husband tip: Before sending, ask what we want and need.)

What to put in it: No offense to family and friends who sent my husband packages, but he got lots of stuff he didn’t need or want, and it likely got sold or given away to other soldiers. For example, my husband isn’t a big candy guy, and everyone sends candy. As your significant other, you’re the one that should be sending him his favorite brand of toiletries, bed sheets, specific meals he wants, etc. Soldiers get so much candy and junky stuff from extended family or church groups that don’t know them well. For example, I knew what kind of deoderant he wore, so I could send that to him. I even stuffed a PILLOW in a Priority box. Granted, I could fit nothing else in there, but he wanted a good quality pillow, and you best believe I was going to make it happen. Also, I sent him twin sheets (Star Wars ones), because the government issued sheets are like cardboard. I also always put a love note in each box. It was probably something I wrote to him while I should have been paying attention in my college class. Always let them know how much you miss them and support them–they can’t hear it enough.

General tips: Have fun with the care packages! I often themed them for whatever holiday was going on. In December, I even sent him a mini tree with tree skirt and ornaments. You have to remember, they’re in a country that doesn’t celebrate all of our American holidays, so when they don’t feel the celebration, it can really make them miss home. Make them feel right at home by decorating the box and contents of the box for Christmas, St. Patty’s, Halloween, etc. I sent care packages at least once a month, and sometimes more. Use an APO Priority box through USPS. When you use that box, you get a discount ($2) if sending them to a soldier overseas. You’ll have to fill out a customs form, so make sure you have their full address with every little detail. Depending on where your soldier is, the ship time will vary. Mine was on the Eastern border of Afghanistan, so it usually took between 10 and 15 days. Of course, the Holidays will make things take longer, so send Christmas packages a week earlier than the average time. Also, mail frequently gets lost or transferred to the wrong FOB, so don’t freak out just yet if a package goes missing in space for a month. Once the postal service delivers mail to the large base, it’s then up to the military to deliver it out to the smaller bases and then soldiers. We all know how quick the military is…(sigh).

DON’T force them to talk about anything.

This is something that can vary depending on how open or sensitive your soldier is. However, on a deployment, this can totally change. You can have a very open, emotional guy who, once he gets going on a deployment, doesn’t want to talk about anything other than the weather. This was our case. When D first deployed, I took it to heart that he wasn’t telling me much. I thought he was being secretive and avoiding me. In reality, he was trying to protect my innocent civilian heart and mind from the evils he was witnessing. After I learned that, I stopped asking him “What happened on the mission?” or “How are you feeling after the injury/death of that just happened?” A simple “How are things going?” is a good way to start. He’ll either say “Good” (which could very well be a lie), or he’ll open up if he’s feeling like it. If he says “Good” and you can tell he’s lying, just simply say “Do you want to talk about it? I know I won’t understand, but I can just listen.” If he says “No,” just let it go and change the subject.

DON’T say “I understand…”

This would really upset my husband. We do not understand and we cannot understand. For my husband, he didn’t want me to understand, because it meant that I was exposed to what he saw and felt there, and he didn’t want that for me. There’s really no detail to add to this one. Just don’t every say you understand when it comes to anything they experience there. Especially don’t say you understand because you went through something similar when so and so happened. Nothing outside of a deployment can compare to a deployment.

DO seek God as a source of reason.

This is what I attribute my “deployment success” to. I am one of those people that truly isn’t bothered by death, and it’s because I know that when I go, I get to go to an eternity of peace, rest, and perfection. I’m one of those people that doesn’t just say “Everything happens for a reason,” but I actually believe it. Even when a child dies or someone dies tragically, I try to think about what positive plans God has in the situation. Without my faith, I wouldn’t have been able to make sense of all of the loss experienced. This faith in God’s plan also helped give me the words to say to my husband when devastating events happened, like his medic being KIA on Christmas Day. And it is very likely things will happen. Simply being able to remind D that God has a plan for each and every one of us helped him–at least I think. Also, if you and your soldier are already spiritual, you can expect for their faith to decline on deployment. There may be the few that get stronger, but it is very hard for them to be surrounded by a Godless people (God-hating people at that) and death and destruction and not doubt God and his will. When this happens, don’t chastise him for it. Just remind him of his faith through example, and maybe including a bible verse in his care package. The greatest verse that saw my husband and I through basic, AIT, deployment was Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Plans for to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

DO keep your soldier connected with events and happenings back home.

Do everything you can to keep your soldier feeling connected to home. The 10,000 miles between my husband and I often felt like 50,000. I’m sure for him, it felt like even more. If I went to eat with his parents, I’d tell him what we talked about and how it went. If I saw a new movie, I’d talk about it and tell him how we’d watch it together when he got home. That’s another good tip that ties in. Always talk about things you’ll do when you get home. It gives you both something to look forward to. You can even make a list and actually do them as a bucket list when he gets home! Something else I did was make a “Project 365: Afghanistan” album on Facebook (back when deployments were 12 months). I posted a photo a day of what was going on at home so that he could see what my life was like for that year. It was a great conversation piece, too, on days when he wasn’t very talkative.

DON’T go on and on about how hard it is on you at home.

Yes, being a girlfriend/fiance/wife back home sucks. But it is NOTHING like being the soldier overseas. So when you complain about how hard it is being there at home, it probably is going to irritate your soldier. Also, don’t complain about measly things in life, like how hard your classes are or how much you wish your parents would get off your back. Bullets and RPG’s aren’t flying around your head, so to them, you’re in heaven sitting in your awful college class.

DO stay busy. Constantly busy.

This was my second best reason why I made it through deployment with a smile on my face (at least most of the time). I was a college student in my junior/senior year when D was deployed. I was taking anywhere from 17 to 21 credits in those 12 months, doing some student teaching, playing college soccer, working out and eating clean, spending lots of time with family and friends–everything I could to keep my mind off of the fact that my husband was 10,000 miles away. Even though it seems the opposite of what you should do, focus on yourself during deployment. The best way to do this is to think how smoking hot you want to be when your man gets home! Focusing on improving yourself through fitness and health is a great way to keep the prize (him coming home) on your mind in a positive way. You can also choose to let him in on how you’re getting in shape and eating healthy, and that will give him something to look forward to, too. Or you can make it a surprise and knock his socks off at homecoming! If you sit around and sulk in your room for 9 to 12 months, deployment will suck. Don’t do it! Don’t.

DON’T take his anger, outbursts, or silence personally. (This is a husband tip).

I remember when my husband would call me sometimes, he would end the conversation short. I knew he could have talked to me for 30 minutes or an hour, but he would get off the phone after five minutes sometimes. At first, it really upset me. But sometimes, they feel so disconnected from the world back home–that includes you–that they really are at a loss for words. And sometimes, they’re just plain TIRED. My husband would go on missions for 3-5 days at a time. When he came back to the FOB, all I wanted was to talk to him for hours about everything that happened in those days for me. I would start rambling and he would cut my short and say he “had” to go. I knew he didn’t, and it would feel like a knock to the heart for me. Just remember that they’re exhausted and they don’t want to go because they don’t feel like talking to you. They just probably want to shower and nap first. Also, the advice from my husband was not to think that when he’s angry, it’s automatically my fault. They’re dealing with so much negativity and violence, so soldiers can’t really help but be angry. Don’t take it personally when they catch an attitude with you or have an outburst. Sometimes, it’s best to say “Okay, I’m gonna let you go so you can catch some rest. Just give me a call later on. I miss and love you,” and leave it at that. Don’t feed into the anger by taking it personally. It will pass once they cool down.

DO understand that as his significant other, you’ll catch the worst.

You will catch more of his anger and emotional outburst than anyone else. You know the cliche: “People often hurt the one’s they love the most.” It’s especially true on deployment. Your soldier knows that, right now, you’re the only constant thing in life. This makes them naturally take out their pent-up emotions on you, because they feel you’re not going anywhere. And trust me, his emotions will be pent-up. Showing emotions is not really encouraged on deployment. I guess you can’t blame them. No one wants a bunch of emotional, PMS-ing guys leading their country into battle! When he is overly angry and it seems directed at you, just let it go in one ear and out the other, and remind yourself that he is manifesting his anger over what he’s seeing there on you. IT’S NOT YOU. I promise!

DO give him room to breathe when he gets home.

This is one thing I did sort of understand. I went on a mission trip as a teenager, and when I came home, I cried constantly. I remember going to the grocery store to get cereal, and when I looked at all the cereal, I broke down crying. It was because I was just in a third world country that didn’t have cereal, and there I was with 5,000 options to choose from. A soldier’s culture shock from deployment is that times 1,000. When he gets home, you’ll want to spend every second with him and make up for the lost time. However, it’s important you let him adjust first. When my husband got back, he was at his Garrison base (Schofield Barracks, HI) and I was back home in Virginia. He called me like once a day, and we hardly talked for a few days. I took it to heart, of course. After the fact, though, I learned that he just needed some time to adjust on his own. To decompress. To get through that initial culture shock. It will take a week or two for them to even feel remotely normal again, so let that happen on his terms, not yours. When he’s ready to be a normal “civilian” again, you’ll know.

DO wise up on PTSD.

Do your research on PTSD. Know the symptoms. Also know that all soldiers experience PTSD symptoms when they first return. However, if you’re still seeing them months later, you may need to address the issue. Don’t let it get out of hand. A previously stable, seemingly normal soldier can come back from a deployment and overdose, drink uncontrollably, or worse. It happens all too frequently. Many of these symptoms include anger, blaming you, or avoiding you. It took me a while to realize that my husband wasn’t doing these things to hurt me. He was doing them because he couldn’t help it due to the illness. If this happens, be supportive and loving, not accusatory. There is unfortunately a negative stigma attached to soldiers with PTSD, so don’t pressure him or make him feel guilty for it. Just encourage him to get help, and hopefully he’ll listen. (If he’s like my husband, it might be years later that he finally listens.)

DO remember to forever celebrate your veteran.

It is mind-blowing how easily America forgets about its soldiers when they come home. I’m no expert, but I think this is probably one of the hardest things for soldiers to grasp when they get home. He went from having people buying his meals and giving him money in airports to people having no clue he was even a soldier when he wasn’t in uniform. When for an entire deployment their identity is based on the valor, honor, and pride of being a deployed soldier and they come home and are just another “normal ole guy,” they can feel worthless and stripped of their pride and valor. I framed all of my husbands deployment awards and medals and hung them in our living room for all to see. I often remind him about how awesome it was for him to fight for our country. Never let them feel forgotten for their sacrifice as a combat veteran. And never make him feel guilty for choosing to make such an awesome sacrifice.

 

So, those are my tips. I could write a novel on this. There are probably 1,000 more I’m forgetting, but these are the key ones that will hopefully help you get through your first deployment as a significant other to a soldier, airman, seaman, or marine. Most importantly, don’t forget to thank yourself and feel accomplished for holding things down on the Homefront. The state of affairs of a soldier’s loved ones at home has been proven as the #1 factor in the success of a soldier’s deployment, so you are playing such a large role in time overseas. You should take pride in that!

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A wreath I made for deployment

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Gotta love Skype’s snapshot capabilities. My husband was fortunate enough to be able to pay for wifi in his room!

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At our joint graduation/homecoming party! Finally!

 

 

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