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The end of a deployment is a joyous occasion for military spouses. The excitement builds for days as the countdown reaches the single digits. Banners hang by the front door, and balloons float from the mailbox. Spouses don their Sunday best and anxiously search for a familiar face in a sea of uniforms. Tears of happiness and relief flow freely while cameras capture that first embrace. The day our deployed service members return is the day we on the home front have been anticipating since the moment they left. But what happens in the days, weeks, even months that follow that long-awaited homecoming?
Military families call this post-deployment stage reintegration. It's a rather emotionless term for a process fraught with emotions. Yes, I just referred to welcoming my husband home from a deployment as a process. When two people live separate lives for extended periods of time under the intensely stressful circumstances of deployments, their reunion involves much more than a romantic kiss. They're forced to teach themselves how to live together again, how to reintegrate into each others' lives. And that reintegration process isn't as effortless as that idyllic kiss on reunion day.
For me, reintegration commenced within hours of my husband's return from deployment. I became a slave to my washing machine as a mountain of dirty laundry materialized while he unpacked. I cursed my checkbook as our grocery bill doubled. I cooked family meals as my children went through Happy Meal withdrawal. I slept restlessly as my husband's nonexistent circadian rhythm caused him to turn the light on and read in the middle of the night. I had finally gotten used to living alone, and suddenly I had to learn how to live with someone else again.
I also struggled with the concept of sharing. While he was gone, I had to do everything myself, but I had the luxury of doing everything my own way. When he came back, I had to relearn the art of teamwork. I had to share my bed and my bathroom. I had to share my alone time and the television remote control. I had to share household chores and parenting responsibilities. I thought I'd be relieved to relinquish some of those duties to my husband, but I wasn't. I found myself growing impatient with him for not knowing where we kept the trash bags or for not following the discipline plan I had established for the kids out of single-parenting necessity. The routines I had grown accustomed to were turned upside down, and I felt his presence was forcing me to abandon the independence I had gained while he was gone.
All of these changes may sound trivial, but they're breeding grounds for arguments. And that's where the communication issue pops up. For months, we had limited communication through letters, emails and brief, infrequent phone calls. We no longer knew how to have a face-to-face conversation. Like a newly married couple, we had to learn how to talk to each other. Whether the topics of discussion were as important as how the deployment affected us psychologically or as minor as the reason the kids have a new bedtime routine, we had to make the effort to sit down, give each other our full attention, and let our words guide our path of rediscovery.
A deployment changes a couple, both individually and collectively. The service member has spent months living by different rules, following nothing but his assigned mission. The spouse has developed her own methods of coping with her new roles and responsibilities. They both faced challenges that neither one of them could ever empathize with or fully comprehend. When the deployment ends, they aren't the same people they were when they said good-bye months earlier. They need time to reintroduce and reacquaint themselves. They need to reunite, readjust, reconnect, reintegrate.
During our first post-deployment reintegration, I mistakenly expected the pieces to magically fall back into place, for our life to pick up where it left off before my husband deployed. But that accomplished nothing except to set us up for failure. Fortunately, I learned from that experience, and the next time around was a much smoother transition. We still hit some bumps along the road after his second deployment, but I was better prepared to overcome them. By altering my expectations, opening the lines of communication, and allowing us time to adjust, I was able to see reintegration from a different perspective and to view it as a rare opportunity to fall in love with my husband all over again.
Freelance writer, teacher, mother of two, and military spouse
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