DEPLOYMENT SURVIVAL GUIDE
First published in Military Spouse Magazine, May/June 2006.
OUR STRESSED OUT BODIES
While my husband, a Navy chaplain, was in Iraq with the Marines, I imagined hearing a knock at my door. I imagined uniformed Marines telling me that my husband was dead. I imagined the funeral. I did this regularly until my husband was safely home in my arms.
I thought I was the only one with such a morbid imagination until I began researching my book, While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront. Chaplain Jeffrey Watters described how he and other chaplains on Fort Bragg, NC, had noticed a wave of grief sweeping through the spouses on the homefront.
“They were exhibiting the same symptoms as those who are grieving over a loved one with a terminal illness,” Watters told me. Then he listed the symptoms.
My mouth dropped open — I’d had many of those symptoms while my husband was in Iraq. Imagining the funeral, crying jags, shortness of breath, insomnia, anxiety attacks… Not only did I not know all this craziness had a name — anticipatory grief — I didn’t know there were techniques for coping with it.
To combat the many stresses of a wartime deployment, the Marine Corps and National Guard have begun to rely on training developed by Major Chad Storlie and the Magis Group, an education and training organization that teaches people how to self-manage their own stress. In one survey, 90% of the soldiers who’d received this training said they’d feel better if their family members could receive it too.
Stress or trauma isn’t just “in your head.” When you imagine your spouse getting injured or killed in a war zone, your body responds as if it’s really happening. Changes rush throughout your brain, body, and nervous system. Glands release hormones, your heart beats faster, less blood flows to your arms and legs. Your bowels may act up, you may get heartburn, acid indigestion, and find it hard to relax or sleep.
A few simple techniques can help you start getting all that stress under control.
Technique #1: Breath Control
“Aside from popping pills, breath control is the most direct route to regulating the nervous system,” explains Elizabeth Hawkins, who heads up the Magis Group. “The conscious use of breath has the potential to bring immediate relief to depression and anxiety.”
Most of us use only the upper third of our lungs. When we’re stressed, our breathing gets even more shallow. Yet most of the capillaries are down at the bottom, and capillaries take life-giving oxygen to the rest of the body. You need to clear out the stale air at the bottom of your lungs to increase the amount of healthy oxygen in your body.
To do this, take a deep breath. Then exhale. Toward the end, push all the air out of your lungs. Do this five times in a row. Then sit still and observe the changes in your body. Gradually increase the number of exhalations over time until you can do ten in a row.
Technique #2: Thought Control
We think sixty thousand thoughts a day, on average. Many of these thoughts are repetitive and some are very negative. Controlling our thoughts requires us to take charge of our lives, to notice the news we watch and the gossip we share, to analyze what makes us feel depleted or uplifted.
“You can learn this during deployment and then benefit from it your entire life,” says the Magis Group’s Stephen Robinson. “It takes a lifetime of practice.”
To control your thoughts, first pay attention and notice the negative thought as it passes through your mind. Then, interrupt the pattern and replace the thought with something else. For example, if you find yourself imagining a roadside bomb blowing up near your spouse, consciously redirect your thoughts to something you have control over, something you enjoy — a gardener might imagine how she’s going to lay out a new vegetable garden.
Journal writing is a good way to learn how to notice patterns in your thinking. Often, once you’ve written down your negative thoughts and worries, it feels like you’ve gotten them out of your system and can move on. Use your journal to practice writing the positive thoughts you’d like to focus on.
“Techniques like these help the soldiers and family members deal with stress in the moment as it’s happening,” says Major Storlie. “That wife’s got a job, three kids — she doesn’t need a lot of handouts on managing her time and taking care of herself. She needs some quick exercises she can do while she’s at the park with the kids and can grab five minutes to sit on a bench.”
Technique #3: Connection Control
I had always thought the military was my husband’s job, not mine. So at first I avoided getting involved in any of the spouse groups. During my husband’s deployments to Afganistan and Iraq, I often stayed with my family. There I was, trying to cope with stresses like anticipatory grief, surrounded by civilians who loved me but didn’t have a clue. Sometimes I felt a little crazy.
But then another military spouse admitted to me that sometimes she, too, imagined her husband’s funeral. I realized I wasn’t crazy — I was normal. I began to find those spouse get-togethers comforting and attended them whenever I could.
While her National Guard husband was deployed, Rebecca Wilkins actually took the initiative to invite other nearby spouses on regular outings. When she was feeling down, she’d call one of the other wives and they’d be feeling the same. They assured each other, “It’s just a natural reaction to an unreal situation.”
Annie Cory learned to be choosy about the spouses she connected with. During one of her husband’s deployments, she hung out with a wild crowd. The heavy drinking didn’t help her depression. Next deployment, she made a point of spending time with spouses in her readiness group who had their act together.
Another benefit to staying connected with your unit’s readiness or support group: If you have questions or need help, a senior spouse or one of the group’s trained spouse volunteers can hook you up with services and support.
Technique #4: Spiritual Control
An active spiritual life is comforting, too. In her book When Duty Calls: A Handbook for Families Facing Military Separation, longtime military spouse Carol Vandesteeg provides practical guidance and resources for the entire deployment cycle. Along the way, she also stresses the importance of taking care of yourself spiritually.
Vandesteeg writes, “See separation as an opportunity to grow rather than focusing on the fact that your husband is deployed.” She suggests that every day your spouse is away, you find something you can do to improve yourself. Make time for meditation, prayer, and books that feed your spiritual side. And don’t forget to count your blessings.
Technique #5: Job Control
More than half of military spouses work outside the home. How you take control of your job during a deployment depends in large part on whether it adds to your stress or helps you cope with it. As many as 16 percent of female spouses with children either quit or cut back on their hours, according to a DoD survey noted by military spouse Karen Pavlicin, author of the encyclopedic guide Surviving Deployment. Among spouses without children, 21 percent of homefront husbands worked more during the deployment, a rate that’s about a third higher than it is for wives. This probably because, in general, men cope by taking action while women cope by talking.
For busy professionals, Pavlicin suggests that you make the most of your time at work by increasing your productivity. Ironically, this means taking regular breaks. Get rid of minor irritations in your work environment, like a flickering fluorescent light or piles of clutter. Join professional associations to keep up with the latest in your field. And put up an “I love me” wall to remind you of your successes and stay motivated.
OUR STRESSED OUT RELATIONSHIPS
Deployment stress not only affects our bodies. It also affects our relationships. Army researchers recently found that among returning combat veterans, the percentage facing divorce had almost doubled, up from 9% to 15%.
How we respond to all this stress can either undermine our relationship or actually strengthen it. John Moore, a licensed clinical professional counselor who counsels and teaches military spouses, has developed a four-step plan to strengthen your relationship. The plan zeroes in on what he sees as the two biggest problems during deployment: lack of contact and lack of routine.
Step One: Create and Follow a Prevention Plan
The goal of your prevention plan is to ensure that you and your service member maintain as much contact as possible while at the same time reducing the disruptions, worry, and helplessness in your life.
First, brainstorm the modes of communication that may be available. Phone, email, instant messaging, Webcam, snail mail — don’t rule anything out.
Then step back and analyze your family to see if there’s a problem that needs to be addressed before the deployment. Every relationship can use a checkup. For help sorting through the issues, your chaplain or community service center can hook you up with a marriage retreat or confidential counseling. You can find free civilian services through MilitaryOneSource.com. For the most complete services, visit the installation’s social work department.
Once the deployment starts, agree to let your service member make the first contact. He or she can report the best times and modes of communication after getting a handle on daily life “over there”.
Set a time and date for each communication. Be realistic. It may be difficult for service members with unpredictable mission schedules to stick to a regular meeting time online or on the phone.
Finally, remind yourself that schedules change and flexibility is a must. Moore has discovered that “it’s more important to do the communication than to actually communicate.” At the end of an hour spent writing a letter or assembling a care package, you often feel as if you’ve spent some special time with your spouse.
Step Two: Healthy Communications
When you make contact, make sure it’s healthy contact. Worried about infidelity or money? Don’t go there. Don’t rehash old arguments. Don’t share problems or bad news your service member can’t do anything about.
But do tell the truth — if there are problems with the children that your service member needs to know about, don’t sugarcoat it or be misleading. Between contact times, Moore’s advice is to make a list of your needs. If you need to hear “I love you,” say so; don’t expect him to read your mind. Always share true feelings and expressions of love and commitment.
Finally, reaffirm your next communication session. It may be specific: “I’ll write/call/email you again tomorrow!” Or it may have to be more vague. Either way, you’ll both have some idea what to expect.
Step Three: Establish Routine
Stay involved with the same family commitments you had before the deployment. Keep attending your church or children’s play group.
Celebrate the holidays as they occur, especially when children are involved. Videotape holiday and birthday celebrations instead of postponing them. Set aside one day a week for a family event. You need each other now more than ever. And plan regular activities that strengthen the long distance connection with your deployed service member.
Corporate trainer Elaine Dumler has gathered more than one hundred ideas in I’m Already Home: Keeping Your Family Close When You’re on TDY. My personal favorite: Flat Daddy. Military spouse Cindy Bruschwein had a waist-up photo of her deployed husband blown up to life size and mounted on foam board. Flat Daddy went everywhere she and their little girl went, smiling beside them in all their family photos. Looking at a snapshot of mom, child, and Flat Daddy makes you laugh and cry at the same time — sort of like deployment.
Step Four: Reassess Your Plan
Ask yourself the following questions:
Is the plan working?
What can be changed?
What cannot be changed?
Look for new opportunities to improve your connection and your routine as they come up.
We often can’t control the amount of stress that deployment throws at us. But we can control how we respond to it.