Before I moved to Hawaii three years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about the military. So coming to the Island of Oahu—which has a huge military population—was a bit of a culture shock for me. I found myself suddenly plunged into the world of military life and culture. This especially became apparent when I became roommates with an Army wife whose husband was deployed to Afghanistan.
Witnessing a deployment from the perspective of an Army spouse was a moving and life changing experience. My new roommate and I quickly became close friends as I helped her endure one of the most grueling aspects of being a military wife. It broke my heart to see my friend dealing with the loneliness and worry of being away from her husband for so long, but I was constantly inspired by her courage and positive attitude throughout his absence.
Although it can be challenging for those of us in the civilian world to really understand what it is like to be part of a military family, I’ve learned that there are things that we can do to be supportive of our friends and family members who are. The stresses of deployments and extended training missions can be overwhelming for both spouses—especially if they have children. The following is a list of important things to keep in mind when your close friends and family members in the military are going through situations like deployments. I asked my friends who are Army and Air Force spouses for their suggestions for the list, and many of the ideas listed here come directly from their experiences.
- Listen—Don’t Judge
One thing that those of us who live with our spouses full-time can easily take for granted is having a designated person who asks us how we are doing at the end of every day. My roommate lived totally on her own for the first couple months of her husband’s deployment, and it was really tough. She had just moved into a new neighborhood at a new duty station, and I know that she struggled with feeling so isolated there by herself.
My advice for supporting friends who are in these situations is to prepare to spend more time listening than you might with other friends and make sure that you are offering a safe environment for them to express their feelings. I know that many military spouses feel guilty talking about their hardships at home when their husbands and wives are half-way across the world in a war-zone, but they need to be able to express what is actually going on in their lives without feeling judged. It is also unhelpful if you are constantly offering your own solutions to their problems or seem to be trying to fix everything. Simply being there to listen is often the most important support you can offer to friends and family members going through stressful times, especially deployments.
- Respect the Limited Opportunities that they have to Speak to their Spouses
Thanks to modern technology, military families have a lot more opportunities to speak directly with their deployed parents and spouses than they did in ages past. Skype and FaceTime are great things, but they still don’t mean that someone can just call up her husband in Afghanistan anytime she wants. Between the time difference, poor internet connections, and the incredibly long hours worked by our soldiers when they are deployed, opportunities to really talk to them are limited and generally occur at random times
So when you are spending time with friends whose husbands or wives are overseas, make sure they feel comfortable taking whatever opportunities they have to speak with their spouses. For certain branches of service and deployments, there can be weeks between conversations, and an extra call is always a blessing. And it is important to remember that these are not always happy conversations. Separated couples have no choice but to use their limited time to discuss difficult family problems or financial issues, and if the last call ended on a low note, there can be a lot of anxiety leading up to the next opportunity to talk. Being flexible when your military friends have have chances to speak with their deployed spouses is something that will always be appreciated.
- Don’t Forget about the Person who is Deployed
For any person you are reaching out to at home while their husband or wife is deployed, don’t forget that there is a soldier or airman or sailor who also needs love and support. Multiple of my friends mentioned that they felt sad when they were the only person putting together care packages or sending notes of support to their deployed husbands. Put together some seasonal decorations or snacks for a care package—you can send it yourself or ask the family at home if you can include it in any packages they might be sending. Write notes of encouragement and said them by mail or just give them to the family to show over video chat. Small acts of support can go a long way to remind deployed servicemen that they are truly missed by their communities back home, and they help the families feel supported as well.
- Keep up the Support After the Deployment is Over
A common misconception of military family life is that all the difficulties suddenly end the day that the deployment is over. Although every military spouse that I know has been incredibly relieved and excited when their husband or wife returned home, that doesn’t change the fact that both parties have usually changed a lot during the long, difficult months of the deployment. If the couple has children, their changes and growth in the last 6 to 12 months will be even more pronounced. The reality is that the adjustment when the active duty spouse finally comes home is often as challenging as the initial separation.
Being part of the welcoming squad when your neighbors and friends return home from deployments is a wonderful experience. However, after that initial welcome home, the most important thing is to respect the family’s space and not interfere with the time they need to reconnect and reestablish their family dynamics.
However, that doesn’t mean we should ever disappear entirely! Every family is different, and while some need extra time just to themselves after deployments, others may want to be part of big social events right away. In addition, if there are any new struggles that are difficult to navigate, and the family might need to talk with their close friends about their problems.
The same principle of “listen, don’t judge” definitely applies in these situations as well; however, you should also encourage your friends to seek professional help if they need it. Everyone’s relationship has problems, and deployments tend to highlight and intensify any existing issues for a military couple. It is unfortunate but true that many marriages end in divorce right after deployments, and it is important that we be present and understanding to our military friends during these transition periods.
If I could sum up my advice for supporting military families, it would be this: be intentional. Take advantage of the opportunities you have to help your neighbors, cousins, children, siblings, and friends in the military. Make a choice to be there for them during the highs and lows they will inevitably encounter. I personally take my role as a civilian in my military friends’ lives very seriously, and I know that I still have a lot to learn about the unique challenges that they are facing. I hope that others will continue to reach out and find new ways to support the military families in their communities, and that this truly amazing group of people will always receive the love and support that they deserve.
Flickr/ Defence Images