Samples from Kristin’s columns and guest blogs:

“The family caregivers who sacrifice to care for their injured military loved ones deserve more protection.”

Feb 11, 2009: YOU’RE NOT ALONE
“DoD is finally figuring out what Greek warriors and their families already knew thousands of years ago.”

Mar 11, 2008: WOMEN IN COMBAT
“I had my opinion. Then I looked at the actual facts.”

“Can you trust a military chaplain to keep your secrets?”

“During a wartime deployment, the number one stress for deployed warfighters is hidden behind closed doors.”


“The family caregivers who sacrifice to care for their injured military loved ones deserve more protection.”

First published on, May 16, 2013.

Paulette Mason and her daughter, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Stefanie Mason, on a Yellow Ribbon Fund outing to Gettysburg during Stefanie’s years of treatment at Walter Reed. Photo by Charles Lee.

Since 2001, nearly 50,000 military families have received the call that their loved one has been injured in Afghanistan or Iraq. Within hours, these family members have dropped everything in the rush to be by their injured servicemember’s side in a faraway military hospital.

They may be there a few months or a few years, sacrificing for their wounded warrior and their country. And for that, they’re fired.

Paulette Mason was fired by email. When her daughter Stefanie was severely injured in Afghanistan, Paulette rushed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She took a leave of absence from her job as a corporate executive, but eventually her employer gave her an ultimatum: Choose between her daughter or her job.

Stefanie was still hospitalized, still completely dependent on Paulette to help her bathe, dress and eat. Stefanie needed to be taken to 7-hours-a-day worth of appointments and reminded to take medication. There was a mountain of paperwork to manage and more.

Paulette chose her daughter — and lost her job.

Siobhan Fuller’s boss came to Walter Reed and fired her right there in the hospital lobby. Meanwhile, her son was in ICU fighting for his life after losing both legs.

Compared to that, Julie Keys considers herself lucky. After she used up her vacation and sick time, her co-workers donated their vacation time to her. When that ran out, her employer put her on short-term disability.

In the end, they, too, let her go. Julie appreciated the support she did receive while she cared for her son, who lost both legs and a hand in the aftermath of a roadside bomb. But she was still unemployed.

I hear these stories over and over again at the nonprofit I work for that assists injured servicemembers and their families. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 26 weeks of unpaid leave for family caregivers of injured servicemembers, many caregivers don’t know their rights under FMLA, or don’t have the energy or resources to take on an employer determined to duck the law.

FMLA doesn’t protect everyone, either — it’s only for employees who meet certain conditions and who work for employers with more than 50 employees. Everyone else slips through the cracks. And while 26 weeks sounds like a long time, the reality is that in six months, a seriously injured servicemember has only just begun to recover.

After injured veterans go home, some are unable to work, and no family can live on veteran disability payments. In those cases, caregivers must continue to provide care while assuming the role of primary breadwinner. So at that point, they either have to find another job (with a resume that now has a years-long gap), or go back to school to prepare for a job that’s better suited to their changed circumstances.

Caregivers who are military spouses can get limited job and education assistance from government and private resources. But when the caregiver is a parent, sibling, girlfriend or close friend, they get virtually no help at all.

The parents’ situation is especially hard. Typically, the parents of young servicemembers are in their forties. According to AARP, when people that age leave their jobs to care for a relative, they lose on average $325,000 in lifetime income, including lost wages, Social Security and pensions.

Military families who’ve suffered an injury have done their part. They’ve sacrificed their physical, emotional and financial well-being for this country. American employers must do their part as well, making sure that caregivers have a job to come home to. It would be nice if we could count on every employer doing this simply because it’s the right thing to do. But experience shows we can’t.

To fix that, we can start by raising awareness among caregivers of their rights under FMLA. We can hold employers to account when they don’t live up to their FMLA obligations. Lawyers can help by donating their services and journalists can help by publicly exposing employers who shirk their legal duty to these unsung heroes.

But FMLA can never deliver what’s really needed: Job protection for every family caregiver of an injured servicemember, no matter who their employer is. This is what a grateful democracy that believes in shared sacrifice does.

We already do it for reservists and National Guard members when they’re called up to serve on active duty, thanks to the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA). When they return home, by law their jobs are waiting for them (at least on paper).

We should do no less for caregivers who are essentially drafted into the service of our country when their military loved one is injured. This requires action on the part of Congress, so contact the president and your representatives in the House and the Senate now. More than 11 years into the Long War, it’s shameful that our country has so far failed its responsibility to our injured veterans by failing to fully protect their caregivers’ jobs.

— Kristin Henderson is communications director for the Yellow Ribbon Fund, and a military spouse, journalist, and author. Her books include the thriller The Zargari Incident, and While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront. The views expressed here are her own.


“DoD is finally figuring out what Greek warriors and their families already knew thousands of years ago.”

First published on, February 11, 2009.

The Defense Department is finally figuring out what Greek warriors and their families already knew thousands of years ago — if you’re suffering from combat trauma, you can’t heal alone. Good on DoD! But there’s still room for improvement. I’ll explain more about that, and introduce a creative new online resource for combat veterans and their families… but first, a little history.

For generations, when our modern American warfighters came home, the best they could hope for was a parade. If they were suffering from combat trauma, no one wanted to hear about it. They were expected to suck it up and suffer in silence, alone. The result was trauma that hardened into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), broken families, and a lot of unnecessary suffering.

The Athenian warriors of ancient Greece, who went to war every summer, did things differently. Maybe you had to read all those old Greek plays and epics in high school — “Heracles”, the “Illiad”, the “Odyssey”… It turns out they were all written by combat veterans, performed by combat veterans, for audiences of combat veterans.

The Greeks understood that “the process of healing from trauma lies fundamentally in communalizing it,” writes Robert Emmet Meagher in his insightful book “Herakles Gone Mad”. In other words, they didn’t have to struggle alone.

The following passage from the play about Heracles, a traumatized combat veteran, was written 2,500 years ago by Euripides, a veteran of the Peloponnesian War. But it could have been written yesterday by many veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq who have PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI).

In the play, Heracles says:
“Do I still live? It seems so. My eyes see what they should…
The sky, the earth, the sun’s brilliance, warm on my face.
But this wild pounding, wave after wave, against my walls, my thin borders,
this seething, terrible turbulence in my heart, like a sea in a storm…
I am plunged into it and I go down… come up… go back down…
Is there anyone there? Anyone close? Friend… nearby?
Someone to wipe my face… my mind… wash away this confusion?”

VA psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay has been spreading the word about the wisdom of the Greeks for years in his groundbreaking books, “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America.” Just a note of caution: Shay’s books are eye-opening but harrowing. Veterans with PTSD should be cautious about reading them on their own because it could trigger memories that they can’t deal with alone. But for families who want to understand what’s going on with their traumatized veteran, these books explain it all.

Back at the DoD, they’re finally getting in on the act. The Defense Department Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury,, is sending out a casting call. They’re looking for warfighters with PTSD and TBI who want to volunteer to tell how and why they got help. Their stories will be videotaped and distributed to motivate other wounded warriors to do the same. It’s called the “Real Warriors” program and the goal is to reduce the stigma of getting help.

While the center’s director says they were inspired by the example of Greek theater, the “Real Warriors” program is a little different. It seems to be focusing only on the positive. These wounded warriors aren’t being asked to publicly dig down into their suffering the way the actors in Greek theater did. Instead, according to media reports, they’ll just be sharing what helped them get back into the fight.

This is good. As Meagher warns in “Herakles Gone Mad,” “We must never confuse the communalization of violence with the publicizing of it. Communalization, in a theater, or anywhere else, requires a live ‘audience’ and live ‘actors’, all able to feel each other’s presence and see each other’s pain, what Shay has described as ‘a living community to whom his [the combat veteran’s] experience matters.’ This means mutual recognition and commitment, not the anonymity offered by the media.”

So, good on the Defense Centers of Excellence for not trying to use a videotaped shortcut to do the hard work of healing. Healing only comes through contact with other caring human beings. But for outreach to combat veterans who need help, video is great.

The DCOE still has some work to do, though, when it comes to families. Families are mentioned in the mission and mission objectives… and that’s pretty much it. Yet when a warrior is wounded, the whole family is wounded. Even the Greeks knew that.

The spouses of today’s combat vets with PTSD will undoubtedly recognize this ancient description of life with a traumatized warfighter. In the play, Heracles’ wife says:
“Ever since I’ve been
with Heracles, sharing his bed, standing with him,
all I seem to have done is nurse terror for him.
One night is fear, the next drives that fear out
with new fear.”

In Sophocles’ play “Women of Trachis”, she adds:
“You must have heard about my suffering.
That’s why you’re here. But without being me,
you’ll never understand it,
and may you never have to.”

The Defense Department Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and TBI is very new, and I hope that the future will bring much more direct outreach and help for the families. But the sooner the better. These families need help now.

In the meantime, that new online resource that I mentioned in the beginning focuses more fully on families as well as warfighters. At, combat veterans AND their families can tell their stories and be heard. They can connect with others going through the same thing and find help. There’s also a crisis hotline.

I told my story to Not Alone. And I’ve listened to the stories of many others on that site. The homepage sums it up: “Not Alone is a community of your peers sharing stories of reclaiming their lives after war. You’ll find people that ‘get you.’ And you’ll know that you are not alone.”

For thousands of years, others have walked this same path. They’re still walking it with you now. You’re not alone.

“Achilles in Vietnam” by Jonathan Shay

“Odysseus in America” by Jonathan Shay

“Herakles Gone Mad” by Robert Emmet Meagher

“Back From the Front: Combat Trauma, Love, and the Family” by Aphrodite Matsakis

“Accepting the Ashes: A Daughter’s Look at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” by Quynn Elizabeth:

“Finding My Way: A Teen’s Guide to Living with a Parent Who Has Experienced Trauma” by Michelle Sherman and DeAnne Sherman:

“Courage After Fire: Coping Strategies for Returning Soldiers and Their Families” by Keith Armstrong, Suzanne Best, and Paula Domenici

“Downrange: To Iraq and Back” by Bridget Cantrell and Chuck Dean

The Defense Department Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury:

If you’re worried about your mental health, take an anonymous, online self-assessment test, then find out where to get help:

Information hotline available 24/7 provides help for any problem, including free confidential counseling with a civilian therapist outside the military system: , 1-800-342-9647

Free confidential counseling for military families, outside the military system, from networks of civilian professionals: &

The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides local support groups and peer recovery programs for service members and their families outside the military system — under “Find Support”, click on “Veterans”:

Back to top


“I had my opinion. Then I looked at the actual facts.”

First published on, March 11, 2008.

Women in combat. Like most people, I had my opinion on the subject.

It’s an especially relevant subject for us military spouses. For husbands, those women fighting out there are the women they love. For wives, our beloved husbands are relying on those women to get their backs.

That said, the basic idea of women in combat didn’t bother me. I’ve known women tough enough to do that quintessential man’s job — kill the enemy — just like I’ve known men nurturing enough to do what we think of as women’s work — nursing and childcare, for example.

Still, I did think opponents of women in combat made a reasonably good point when they argued that many women don’t have the upper body strength to haul heavy weapons or wounded buddies. I thought they made an even better point when they worried that either sexual tension or the male instinct to protect females would undermine a unit’s ability to pull together and fight effectively.

Then I received an assignment to go out and do some reporting on women who kill in combat. That required me to look at the actual facts.

One of the first facts I came across is that most soldiers have already concluded that women do have the physical strength, stamina and mental toughness to be effective in combat, according to surveys by the U.S. Army Research Institute.

Which brings me to the next fact that I learned. The argument is not over whether or not women should be in combat. They already are. For example, a female MP who has to defend against the enemy while she’s out on patrol — she’s in combat. So is a female pilot who attacks the enemy from the air. But in neither of those situations is she engaged in offensive operations on the ground, what’s called “direct ground combat.” Although the military has opened up most of its jobs to women, they’re still banned from direct ground combat units: infantry, tanks, and artillery. At this point, that’s what the argument is about.

So I looked at that survey of soldiers. And I wondered: What do they know that I don’t? What makes 86% of them so sure that females might as well be out there kicking in doors alongside their male comrades? Not too long ago, male service members were among the biggest opponents of women in uniform, much less in combat.

Well, nowadays most of those guys are serving in coed units. So apparently familiarity doesn’t breed contempt — it breeds respect. I learned that the same thing happened when President Truman ended racial segregation in the military. Defenders of the status quo predicted that units would fall apart if whites were forced to fight alongside blacks. But today our military is a more effective fighting force because of integration.

Meanwhile, French, German, Danish, and Canadian women are now serving in their countries direct ground combat forces.

It’s true that in coed units, good order and discipline are sometimes undermined by problems like sexual harassment and inappropriate romances. But the source of those problems is poor leadership, not hormone-addled service members.

On the subject of physical abilities, supporters of women in combat point out that women’s generally smaller size and greater flexibility give them an advantage in cramped tanks or enemy tunnels — like in Vietnam, where the smallest guy in the unit always got the job of checking out the enemy’s underground tunnel complexes. There’s also some evidence that with conditioning, many women actually can achieve the upper body strength necessary for frontline combat.

Take Krista, for instance. In Somalia in 1993, during the time of the Black Hawk Down battle, she was a twenty-one-year-old Army specialist, armed with an M16 and an aluminum baseball bat. She’s five-foot-nine and comes from solid Slovak stock, 180 pounds of muscle.

When male soldiers sneered, “What’s a girl doing here?”, Krista would assume the benchpress position and her friend Bob, who weighed 150 with his boots on, would go stiff and fall into her arms. Then Krista would benchpress Bob. She’d keep on benchpressing him until the other soldiers stopped laughing.

The very restrictive rules of engagement in Somalia meant Krista relied more on her baseball bat than her M16. As her truck lumbered on food runs through Mogadishu’s crowded streets, Krista stood in the truck’s open bed and clubbed the mobs who swarmed up the side of the truck to steal the food. The special forces guys would request her as their driver when they went out on equipment runs. Infantry took her along when they needed to kick in the door to a building that might have women inside.

She’d plunge in with her fellow soldiers, all male, and there would be a terrified Somali woman. The rumor was that American men would rape any woman who fell into their hands. Krista would get down on one knee, hand off her weapon to another soldier, and pull off her Kevlar helmet so the woman could see she was a woman, too. She’d stay with the woman while she was questioned.

The issue of women in combat is a complex one. The vast majority of the data I found seemed to back up the supportive soldiers in that Army survey. So whether or not women should serve in direct ground combat seems to come down to this question: What role do we believe women should play in our society?

How you answer that question comes down to beliefs, not facts. And what we believe is up to each of us to decide for ourselves.

Back to top


“Can you trust a military chaplain to keep your secrets?”

Abridged version first published on, February 12, 2008.
Full-length version (below) has been edited since first published in Military Spouse Magazine, May/June 2006.

When the service member’s wife came into the chaplain’s office, it was clear she’d been crying. The chaplain assured her that anything she said wouldn’t leave his office, not without her permission. Soon she was hinting at abuse.

“I don’t want to get my husband in trouble,” she said softly, “but we need help.”

According to the military, you can talk to a chaplain about anything and it’s all confidential. But many states and religious denominations require clergy members to report abuse to the authorities, especially child abuse. So could the service member’s wife count on this chaplain to keep her secret?


We hear it again and again — from our service members, in spouse orientation sessions, at deployment briefings — the chaplain is the one person in the military to whom you can talk about anything and trust that tomorrow it won’t be all over the base. In a military setting, the most important reason for this may be military readiness.

Jennifer Marner’s husband Josh was normally an easy-going guy, so she noticed when he started coming home irritable from Fort Bragg every night. It wasn’t hard to pick a fight, which got him to spill his guts. He was having trouble with another soldier at work.

“Maybe you need to talk to someone besides me,” she said.

So he went to the chaplain. “I told him the story of what was going on and I said I’d rather not have this come out,” Josh recalls. “I just wanted advice and someone else to holler at because I was really frustrated with this guy.” The chaplain suggested other ways Josh could deal with both his co-worker and his frustration. After he talked with the chaplain, Jennifer noticed that Josh began to seem like his old relaxed self again. He was also more effective at work.

“There is a military benefit to having some place a person can go to seek counsel and resolve the situation without worrying about a report being filed or charges made,” says Chaplain Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cannon, staff chaplain at the Air Force Chief of Chaplains office.

“It also has military value for the families,” he adds, because chaplains are a safe place for everyone to blow off steam. “They want to keep a stiff upper lip while their spouse is deployed, but sometimes that lip quivers a little. That’s when it’s good to talk to the chaplain. They’ll say, ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ and start to cry. Soon they start talking, a stream of emotional consciousness, and after twenty minutes they feel better. Meanwhile their service member can stay focused on his or her mission instead of worrying because their spouse is upset.”

Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Peter Frederich, family ministries officer in the Army Chief of Chaplains office, agrees. “Ready families are healthy families who have a safe place, with the chaplain, to work through the unhealthy stuff.”

But military readiness isn’t the only reason chaplains stay mum. The oldest reason is religious. Denominations like the Roman Catholic church have long believed the act of confession is sacred. Confess your sins to a priest and it’s just between you, the priest, and God. According to Chaplain Cannon, “The conversations are like the way people cry out to God. They cry out to a chaplain in the same way. It’s a sacred place we occupy in that person’s life, a unique relationship.”

The newest reason is legal. In the case of US v. Moreno, a soldier killed his girlfriend, then went looking for a priest to confess to. He couldn’t find one, so he confessed to a Protestant chaplain instead, who convinced him to turn himself in. So far so good. Then the chaplain provided a statement to the military, revealing the soldier had confessed. The soldier’s conviction was later overturned because when the chaplain provided that statement, he violated what is called “privileged communication.” It wasn’t the chaplain’s privilege to reveal his conversation with the soldier. The soldier owned that privilege. Without the soldier’s permission, the chaplain could not reveal their conversation.

As a result, anything you communicate to a military chaplain is considered legally “privileged” if it passes three tests. The communication must be:
1. A formal act of religion or an act of conscience.
2. Made to a chaplain or a chaplain’s assistant.
3. Intended to be confidential.

“Under general practice, we interpret that very broadly,” says the Army’s Chaplain Frederich. “Anytime you come to talk to a chaplain, it’s privileged.”

Or is it? Remember the wife who hinted about abuse to the chaplain at the beginning of this article? Federal law may say that as a military chaplain he or she can’t report it, but what if state law or the chaplain’s church require it to be reported? The concept of supreme sovereignty dictates that federal law trumps state law, but in the case of privileged communication it hasn’t been tested in court yet. And what if someone admits they plan to kill themselves or someone else? These situations may be rare, but the thought of them keeps new chaplains awake at night.

“The toughest areas are abuse and harm to other people. That’s going to be a challenge,” muses Lieutenant (junior grade) John Ault from his new duty station at the Naval Submarine Support Center Norfolk. He had just graduated from the Naval Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island, where new Navy chaplains undergo ten weeks of training. Recently, ethics instruction was expanded from just a few hours to forty hours. “Back at chaps school, our main discussion was, does this really mean absolute? That’s what we kept asking them. And they said confidential means confidential.”

But confidential doesn’t mean chaplains have to sacrifice safety. A chaplain instructor at the Naval Chaplain School, Lieutenant Michael Moreno (no relation to the soldier who killed his girlfriend), explains, “There may be times you can’t say anything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. You tell me you’re going to hurt yourself or others, you just got yourself a new best friend. I’m your shadow now. The last thing a chaplain will do is let a wrong continue.”

And as the Air Force’s Chaplain Cannon points out, “They wouldn’t be coming to talk to you if they didn’t want help.”

One thing settled it for Chaplain Ault, the new chaplain. He realized that while he might think he was helping someone by breaking confidentiality, he’d ruin his chances of helping anyone else ever again. “Once the chaplain talks, we eliminate ourselves from being effective for others,” he says firmly. “No one else is going to come to us, so we might as well just get off the boat.”

Occasionally, a chaplain learns that lesson the hard way.


“Chaplain,” Donna asked, “could I talk with you for a minute?”

Donna had stopped by her husband’s office on base. He had stepped out for a minute but the chaplain was waiting for him, too, and Donna needed to talk to the chaplain herself. She pushed the door to, said, “Just between you and me…”and proceeded to explain she had a friend with a problem.

Sometimes when people tell a chaplain their “friend” has a problem, they’re really talking about themselves. But Donna did have a friend with a problem. Donna knew the chaplain would soon be contacting her friend, and she knew her friend wanted nothing to do with any chaplain. Donna has been a military wife for twenty-two years. She’s an active volunteer in the military’s spouse support and mentoring programs. She’s seen the good that chaplains can do. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she remembers telling her friend. “I’ll talk to the chaplain for you and tell him how you feel.” So she did.

Later that day, Donna’s husband was called in by his commanding officer, who said the information Donna had given the chaplain was inappropriate. “I think you did the right thing,” Donna’s husband told her that night. “But the CO told me to talk to you. He says it’s got to stop.”

Donna had thought her conversation with the chaplain was confidential. She says the chaplain never said it wasn’t. Yet apparently the chaplain had gone to the CO.

Other commanding officers might have handled it differently. Retired Army tank battalion commander and leadership consultant Ralf Zimmerman lays it on the line. “As a commander I’m going to ask if the chaplain is a person I can use as a multipurpose problem solver in my unit. The chaplain can only do that if the individuals [in my command] trust that the chaplain will keep certain information confidential. The most important thing is that trust relationship.”

In Donna’s case, she felt betrayed and humiliated. She cried at first. But later a senior chaplain hosted a meeting between Donna and her chaplain. Her chaplain declined to comment for this article, but according to Donna, he eventually admitted his mistake and asked her to forgive him. He promised to take it as a learning experience. That’s why Donna has asked that her real name not be used — so this chaplain’s chances of helping others won’t be ruined.

The fallout could have been a lot worse. If Donna had been younger, it could have damaged her marriage; she and her service member might have concluded no chaplain could be trusted; military readiness might have suffered. But as a senior wife, Donna had perspective. In her volunteer work she had always leaned on her chaplains, whatever their faith background. “He was my right hand man,” Donna says of a rabbi who was particularly helpful. “I could go to him with anything. Never once did it cross my mind that it would go anywhere else unless I gave him permission to talk about it.”

Donna and the rabbi never discussed confidentiality. They just assumed, and in that case it worked. Most of the time it does. The concept of confidentiality seems so simple and absolute it’s often taken for granted. But real life is complicated. People miscommunicate. They have conflicting expectations. They may not think through the consequences of their ethical decisions. States and religious groups interpret the issue differently, as do the Army, Air Force, and Navy. Even individual chaplains are allowed some leeway in cases that don’t wind up in court. Currently, a working group of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board is attempting to develop a uniform policy on confidential communication for all the services.

In the meantime, Chaplain Moreno at the Naval Chaplain School admits, “There is some confusion among chaplains, commanders, and service members.” To avoid confusion, he offers a simple suggestion: “Each chaplain should say, ‘Of course this is confidential, this is how we do business.'”

If every chaplain started every counseling session with a statement about confidentiality and privileged communication, it could serve as a reminder to the chaplain while at the same time help the counselee to open up. Experienced chaplains have said they also mention it again at the end, especially if the confidentiality situation is sticky and needs clarification, or if a decision needs to be made. But if the chaplain doesn’t bring it up and you’re the one seeking help, you might want to ask about it, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page.


When a service member or a spouse goes to a chaplain, she should hear that chaplain say, “When you come in, when that door is shut, what you say to me stays with me unless you choose to give that up.” The wife at the start of this article hinted at abuse in the family. Then she asked for help. Her chaplain identified resources for her and walked her through various options. When she got up to leave, she knew what she had to do. In the end, she got her family the help they needed.

“That happens every time,” one chaplain said, speaking from experience. “With the help of the objective outside view that I bring to the situation, they’ve been able to see the solution for themselves. For me, confidentiality is the starting place to find answers in a safe haven.”

Back to top


“During a wartime deployment, the number one stress for deployed warfighters is hidden behind closed doors.”

First published on, October 20, 2006.

I recently saw a statistical graph that made my jaw drop.

The graph showed the results of a study that followed an Army unit over the course of a one-year deployment to Iraq. The purpose of the study was to identify the top three things that caused the most stress to deployed soldiers. Here’s what the graph revealed.

During a wartime deployment, the third biggest stress is difficulty within the unit — personality conflicts, abusive leadership, and so on.

The second biggest stress is combat. Are you surprised that combat isn’t number one? I was. It’s certainly what the rest of us assume must be off the charts in terms of stress, or at least that’s what TV news and the movies would have us believe.

But no. The fact is, the number one stress for deployed soldiers is hidden behind closed doors. It’s the homefront. What’s happening back home with their families caused soldiers nearly twice as much stress as getting shot at.

I don’t know why I was surprised. When my husband and the spouses of my friends were in Iraq and Afghanistan, I experienced firsthand how much our deployed loved ones depend on us to keep them sane. And when I was in Iraq myself, I saw how they line up outside the Internet cafes and phone banks at all hours of the day and night just to connect with the folks back home.

And yet, a Marine major told me that if he could, he would pull the plug on all of it. Why? Because not everyone found comfort when they called home. This major told me that the homefront was the source of his biggest problems — Marines who were unable to keep their heads in the game because their spouses, girlfriends, or parents were struggling with depression, or fighting with their Marine on the phone, or cheating on him.

New technologies have revolutionized the relationship between the battlefront and the homefront. People often ask me if cell phones and e-mail have been good or bad for families going through a deployment. My answer is always, “Yes.” The technology itself is neither good nor bad. It’s what we do with it. As an Army chaplain put it, “If you use it for sharing events, staying connected, the immediacy of sharing while it’s fresh, that’s good. But if you’re unwise, if you use it to fight and complain about who’s got it worse — that is not reconcilable, who has it worse.”

So military families have a responsibility to do what they can to reduce the stress the homefront places on our service members. But so does the rest of our country. A graph that reveals the soaring stress of the homefront on the battlefront underlines the critical importance of taking care of military families. Making sure they receive the support they need to get through a deployment clearly has a direct impact on our nation’s ability to successfully fight a war. A spouse experiencing clinical depression can’t jolly herself out of it.

And yet, as our overseas conflicts go on, services like marriage counseling on military installations are being cut. For families enduring repeated separations, getting their marriages back in shape between deployments is an absolute necessity.

It’s up to the civilians who send us to war to make sure we can afford all the costs of war, and that includes the costs of taking care of our military families.

Back to top