Finding Support as a Military Family

by Mary T. Scott

Emily, a young military spouse and mother, was sadly eyeing the duffle bags and equipment piled in her front hall. The time was drawing closer for her husband, Tom, to leave for the war zone in Afghanistan. This was not the first time Tom, a Marine sergeant, had gone to war. Two years earlier, Tom left for Iraq and was gone for seven months.

At that time, Emily and Tom had been newly married and Emily was learning all about being a Marine wife, living in a small apartment near a military base. She was working at a small law firm in town and had a lot to keep her busy while Tom was in Iraq. Emily worked long hours and found support with a small group of friends from work. Emails and occasional phone calls from Tom kept them in touch and connected. She received a few calls from a volunteer in Tom’s unit but when asked “How are you doing?” usually responded “Just fine!”

This time was different. This time, she had Justin, an energetic one-year-old, who was just learning to walk. She had cut back on her hours at the law firm and was working part-time. How was she going to juggle it all—running the home, working, caring for a baby, and caring for herself—while Tom was gone? Who would understand what she was going through? Their family lived over a thousand miles away and she had never had time to make many close friends in the military unit where Tom was assigned.

Working your way through.
Emily and Tom are typical of active duty military families. They are young, far from family support, and may be going through their third or fourth deployment experience. You may think that all deployments are alike—once you’ve been through one, the next one should be easy or, at least, easier. As we see with Emily and Tom, each deployment can vary greatly and the support, tools, and resources needed to help all family members thrive during the separation must be flexible enough to change with the family.

With the increased involvement of the National Guard and Reserve, many families, living in communities far from military installations, have found themselves suddenly military and dealing with the stress of deployment. Navigating unfamiliar military benefits and programs, often facing financial constraints if the military salary is less than the civilian salary, and taking over family responsibilities, all contribute to this stress. Over half of our serving military are unmarried. Parents often find themselves in the role of primary support for their service member. They may not know how to connect to their service member’s unit. Everyone worries about their loved one being in harm’s way.

Support from the military.
During the many years of these recent wars, the Department of Defense (DoD), the Services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) including the National Guard and Reserve, have established support groups and programs to provide for family readiness while the service member is deployed to a combat zone. They have recognized that a ready, resourced, and supported family contributes to the readiness of the service member, relieving their worries and allowing them to do their job to the best of their abilities.

Support for service members and their families works best at the unit level. The personal outreach from family readiness and support group leaders and volunteers has enhanced unit cohesiveness and given the families a sense of belonging. The key to involvement of family members, especially parents and those who do not live close to the unit, is the service member providing the name and contact information of the family member to the command.

Primary among these support programs is Military OneSource, which overcomes geographical constraints by offering services throughout the United States and overseas where military families are stationed. Family members can pick up the phone, call the 800 number, and be connected with a licensed social worker who is there to listen and help access information about the support services you need, be it child care, medical care, or a vet for your cat. Military OneSource connects you with portals to specific Service information. It also offers 12 face-to-face, non-medical counseling sessions with a counselor in your area. This can be for family and personal problems or deployment stress.

Creating your own circle of support.
Have you established your own circle of family support? Have you alerted family and friends about the upcoming deployment? Don’t be afraid to ask friends for help. Set up a regular time to meet with them for dinner or a movie, or just a chat and a cup of tea. If you have children, include them in your outings when possible, but don’t forget that you will need some adult time just for you.

Let your boss know that you will be a single parent for a while and may need some flexibility in your schedule, but don’t take advantage of it.

Don’t attempt to take on more than you can manage. While it may appear to be the perfect time to go back to school, repaint the house, and finish that novel you always wanted to write, try one project at a time.

Take care of your health— the first person in the family support chain is you and if you miss meals, lose sleep, or become a couch potato, your health will suffer. Research has shown, during deployments, the well-being of the parent caregiver has a direct impact on the well-being of the children. Now is the time to start that walking routine you always wanted to begin. Find a walking partner—always a great person to vent to—or walk after school and take the kids with you!

Excerpt taken from “Finding Support as a Military Family” CareNote.