The Hidden Hurt of Military Families

Hardships of deployment aren't limited to those who wear the uniform — how do they manage?

by Katherine Harris | Updated 15 Feb 2017 at 9:08 AM

It makes no difference whether a person deploys overseas with the military, a government service, or as a contractor — someone is left behind at home. Those who deploy must take into consideration the strain placed on their families, as the emotional toll for those who wait at home is tremendous. With the operational security (OPSEC) we all have to deal with, most of the time little information is forthcoming on what is happening other than the news on TV — and that can be a very scary situation.

Those of us who wait at home have a story of precisely when we began our journey into the world of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. We share common experiences along the bumpy road of being the spouse of one deployed—experiencing the joys and delights of getting to know other spouses in the same situation and connecting with them for support on the one hand, and going through many trials, frustrations, and disappointments on the other. Isolation and loneliness are palpable. Sharing our stories became somewhat of a collective therapy session, and it helped us all. Managing expectations — which can be very different depending on one’s background, age, or any number of societal or cultural factors — was critical for me from the very start.

As a military spouse, I had to deal with a huge amount of paperwork and forms that I had never had to think about before.

To cope with the long and bumpy road, I have always relied on my faith to keep me grounded and centered. I was also fortunate enough to continue my education and international work to keep me busy and my mind off the fact that I was alone with a small child in a foreign country, and when I got there, I didn’t speak the language!

My own personal journey began when I was forced to step out of my comfort zone and confront the acute realization of life without my spouse while he went to the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. When he came home on leave, he had to ask where we lived because I had moved us to a new apartment complex after our small apartment was burglarized. I had to take care of everything while he was away. We spent a few months together as he went to another professional development school, and then got orders to Berlin. And off he went.

I was eight months pregnant and my spouse was sent to Germany. Our son was barely three months old before his dad saw him for the first time. We arrived in Berlin to join him. The cycles of deploying to parts unknown with almost no notice had begun. Oftentimes we were not even told where they were going, or even when our spouses would be back. Each time the unit left, the rest of the families in our unit were thrown into the blender of appointments, broken appliances, bills, car repairs, and everything else.

As a military spouse, I had to deal with a huge amount of paperwork and forms that I had never had to think about before. Wills, power of attorney, financial forms, passports, and everything else that my spouse had taken care of before were all now on my shoulders. I also had to learn to deal with all those special days (holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries) that were missed. I learned very quickly that it is not about “the day” — we would celebrate the occasion whenever we could, and we did.

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When a unit goes off to parts unknown, there is a system of support. It is a great asset and is needed. Within the first three months of arriving overseas, I was in a German hospital with our son, who became very ill. Here I was, a young mother from Texas, surrounded by a cadre of non-English-speaking nurses, and only one doctor in the hospital spoke English. Were it not for the support and care I received from our detachment, I probably would have packed my bags and headed back to Texas. It was amazing.

Every day, someone from the unit checked in with me, brought meals to our apartment, and one spouse even came over and cleaned the apartment so that when our son came home from the hospital, the place was spotless! This story is not unusual in today’s military. One thing the military does quite well is family support.

Since our detachment on the inter-German border depended on linguists, we had an in-house instructor. I was the only spouse who availed myself of this valuable asset. Very quickly I learned the language, and this served me well, as I was able to integrate into the local community and not isolate myself as so many other spouses did.

What about the spouses who stay in the U.S. while their loved one is deployed? It is still imperative to use the services and support systems in place that care for families. Doing so keeps you connected. Especially here in the U.S. where creature comforts are familiar, it is all too easy to get into trouble. Finances, relationships, and fidelity can all suffer when those at home do not avail themselves of the assets the family support centers provide.

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What about the spouses of government contractors? Some 15 years after leaving active duty military service, my spouse deployed once more. Here we go again — only this time, there was no support system at all. All of the contractors he worked with left someone at home to fend for themselves. As I mentioned, in the military there are support systems to help, assist, and guide. Outside of the military, the family member left at home is on their own.

Something else about the contracting world that many do not understand — during military deployments that have a set rotation time, there is leave to come home, but contractors often have no such luxury. One deployment to Afghanistan had no time off, and it was 18 months before he got a break. This time, however, I was better prepared. Before he left, we developed a “pass-on” book. It contained everything — and I do mean everything — from a durable power of attorney to wills, bank account numbers, insurance information, computer passwords, critical points of contact, who to call for repairs. You name it, we had it all down in a binder. This quick and ready reference was a life-saver for me.

We must appreciate and thank those who wait at home — for being there, suffering the hardships, and keeping the home fires burning while waiting for our loved ones to return.

When he arrived in Afghanistan the first time, he flew into Kandahar. The base was huge, and it came under rocket attack almost daily. After getting to his assigned spot, he called to let me know he was fine. During that call, a rocket came in and hit the building he was calling from. I heard the explosion on the other end and asked what that noise was. So as not to worry me, he tried to play it off, all the while gathering up his gear and heading to the bunker. A second rocket came in and hit the radio tower, knocking out the phones. I heard the explosion, and then the phone went dead. It was ten days before he was able to make calls again.

Like every other spouse at home waiting on calls from their loved ones in Kandahar, we had no idea what had happened. Nevertheless, I took it in stride and kept going. I was lucky — I had been married almost 30 years by this time and was accustomed to him taking off on one adventure or another. I must admit, I always dreaded the calls that started with, “I’m all right.” I knew immediately he wasn’t. Over the years, I would receive several of those calls.

Another important factor to realize is that the one who is deployed is worrying about what is going on at home. When those who wait at home start communicating all the problems they are going through, it often causes unnecessary stress on the one deployed, who is already in a stressful situation and unable to alleviate their spouse’s concerns. The whole situation of feeling helpless can spiral out of control for both parties. Those at home must learn the hard lesson that they sometimes must keep things to themselves and figure out how to solve the issues on their own — bad news helps no one. Sadly, not all do this well, and not all can take the separation. Many families suffer during deployment. Relationships fall apart, finances suffer, the mental strain can sometimes be just too much.

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Today, with our military so overtasked, this scenario I laid out above happens more than you think. It puts an incredible strain on families at home. Wives, husbands, children, and parents are all subject to the stress of not knowing and having to deal with their family member gone. This is also something those who are deployed never forget. When one service member, one government worker, or one contractor leaves to go off and do their time away, the ones left behind are handed the serious mission of keeping things running.

We must appreciate and thank those who wait at home — for being there, suffering the hardships, and keeping the home fires burning while waiting on our loved ones to return. Those of us who wait at home are just as deserving of thanks for our service. We are the unseen — we are the other side of deployment, and we know they could never do the jobs that they do without us.

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. An OpsLens contributor, she has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany. This article from OpsLens is used by permission. 

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