Monday, October 29, 2012

For the Troops

meaning of deployment
Wondering what to send the troops?
Send them peace of mind by helping their families.

Most Americans want to support the troops, but with less than 1% of us serving in the military, it's hard for the rest of us to know what kind of support the troops really need. What's it like to go to war? What's the meaning of deployment? Well, the military conducted a survey that reveals the three biggest causes of stress for deployed service members.

The third biggest turns out to be difficulty within the unit, things like personality conflicts and abusive leadership. The second biggest cause of stress is combat. If you're like me, you probably assumed that would be number one.

losing a loved one
When a parent deploys
it's like losing a loved one,
and children may act out or withdraw.
But actually, the number one stress for deployed service members is trouble at home. The home front causes nearly twice as much stress as the battlefront. So instead of wondering what to send the troops in a care package, the best way to help a deployed service member is to help their family back home.

I guess I should have seen that coming. I'm married to a Navy chaplain who has deployed to war zones three times, twice with Marines on the move, getting shot at. The first time he headed out, I thought I was the only crazy one crying in the shower and imagining his funeral. I didn't find out until much later that my reaction was totally normal when you're facing the possibility of losing a loved one. It's called anticipatory grief, and it's very common among families who have a loved one with a terminal illness... or a loved one who deploys to a war zone.

death of a loved one
The fear of a knock at the door
announcing the death of a loved one
can lead to anticipatory grief.
That fear of a knock at the door announcing the death of a loved one is at the back of your mind every waking moment of a deployment. Anticipatory grief can result in a whole constellation of symptoms, including anxiety attacks, insomnia, and headaches. If it leads to depression, or you self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, you've got trouble on the home front. Anticipatory grief and loneliness are the two biggest emotional challenges most families face when their service member deploys.

For the spouses of deployed service members, other challenges include increased responsibilities at home and a drop in income -- they often have to cut back at work to handle everything that goes with managing a household on their own and, if they have kids, being the only parent.

Military family members have to deal with phone calls and emails from the front, too, often in the middle of the night -- anytime their loved one gets a break and has access to a phone or computer. Meanwhile, depending on a family's feelings about the war, they may feel isolated or alienated from the military community, or the civilian community.

All these challenges overwhelm some of us. Others figure out how to cope and even grow stronger and more resilient. Still, we can all use some help now and then.

If you know a family going through a deployment, offer hands-on, practical help -- mow the lawn, bring meals, take the kids for a few hours so the home front parent can run errands, or just lend a listening ear. Don't judge and don't offer opinions about the war, pro or con. Military families are as diverse as civilians in their opinions. The difference is that their opinions are part of how they cope with the intense emotions of a deployment. Undermining that is not helpful.

If you're a teacher, keep an eye on kids with a deployed parent. If they start acting out or withdrawing, or show up for school looking like they got dressed in the dark, odds are there's an overwhelmed parent at home who's struggling, too. Educate yourself about available family support services so you can share that information -- Military OneSource is a good place to start. Believe it or not, many military families have no idea what's available.

Even if you don't know anyone in the military, you can still help through a variety of nonprofit civilian organizations. To find one with a good reputation, visit the White House's Joining Forces website and volunteer or donate.

death of a loved one
Many military families are unaware that family support services are available.
Mental health professionals can donate their time through organizations like SOFARGive an Hour, and NAMI. Animal lovers can foster a deployed service member's beloved pet through Guardian Angels for Soldier's Pet. There's something for everyone. Whole communities can weave together a safety net of support to ensure no military family falls through the cracks. A complete list of suggestions, resources, and family support services are on my website.

-- Kristin Henderson, author of "While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront"

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