The Reintegration Toolkit- Families Learning the Deployment Process

By Molly Blake

Blue Star Families Web Editor and Marine Corps Spouse

Home from deployment for about two weeks, my husband was standing in our kitchen assembling lunches for our daughters to take to day camp. Meanwhile I was coming unglued.

“Do you want a sandwich?” he asked our seven-year old and then proceeded to pepper her with questions. “Do you want applesauce or how about a banana,” he continued.  He was trying desperately to be a part of the morning routine – something he had missed out on for the past six months.

Okay so my metaphor perhaps lacks some meat … but it illustrates the larger issue of control and how it can wind up being the giant camouflaged elephant in the room, particularly during the reintegration portion of a deployment cycle.

“The deployment cycle is something that military families have to learn to navigate in a healthy way,” said Dr. Vivian Greentree, Blue Star Families Director of Research and Policy.  “It is important for our families to reach their own solutions and levels of comfort in how they integrate the cycles of deployment into their lifestyle because deployments will always be a part of the military family experience.”

My husband flew away on a bright December morning – tipping his jets’ wings in an aeronautical wave goodbye.  And because this marked our fifth deployment I knew the drill:  wave tearfully, bite back tears so as not to freak out two young daughters, and embrace a routine with gusto. And as far as deployments go, my daughters and I did very well.  There were some long Sunday afternoons and more than a few emergency wine and whines with my fellow spouses but as a seasoned military spouse, I was prepared for the ups and downs of deployment.

For many military families, however, staring down their first deployment is extraordinarily stressful.  Whether you are a parent, sibling, grandparent, child or service member, a deployment is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  There is crushing isolation and fear; not to mention feelings of anger, annoyance, and desperation.   And that’s just the first day.

In 2010, in recognition that military families needed a resource to address the deployment process, Defense Centers of Excellence, in conjunction with Vulcan Productions and This Emotional Life, produced A Handbook For Family and Friends of Service Members: Before, During, and After Deployment.  Blue Star Families provided content advice and guidance for its development and the toolkit has been in high demand since its creation because it addresses all the emotions from the first stages of deployment to the reintegration process.  It’s what to expect when you are expecting meets military 101. The toolkit is currently being updated by Blue Star Families, Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE), SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), HealthNet, and Vulcan Productions.  The updated toolkit will have several new features, integrating the preferences and suggestions collected from military family users.  The biggest change will be the separation of the ‘post-deployment’ and ‘reintegration’ tab to reflect the nuances between short-term and long-term effects of deployments.  Understanding that deployments look different to military families from different branches, there will also be more highlighted personal accounts from spouses, parents, children, and service providers of service members.  Finally, knowing how much military families rely on social media for both interactive support and seeking out information, added functionality will include an e-book and the potential development of a smart phone app.  We will also be partnering with organizations like Got Your 6 to help promote the updated toolkit and reach our military community.

“The toolkit has been so valuable to our families as a resource the past two years, we are excited to give it a facelift and ensure it continues to be a valued source of information.  The team we have assembled to work on it is dedicated to this community and to serving our families, we all have a personal vestment in seeing our community thrive and really to set themselves up for success,” said Greentree.

My toolkit stayed at my bedside for the duration of the deployment and has dog-eared pages and more than a few wine stains on its pages.  Just like “What to Expect,” it was more like a talisman – a reminder that regardless of the situation, I could find the answer somewhere in the worn pages. Somewhere, someone had been through the same issues as me:  fighting over facetime, keeping our girls connected with their dad, addressing their anxiety and behavior, sharing stellar report cards and tales of second grade adventures.  These are all the things that can quickly be construed as negatives. But as the book reminds us, finding the silver lining and somehow massaging the misadventures into a learning experience is much more productive.

My daughter patiently answered all her dad’s questions about her lunch that morning.  Only once did she say, “that’s not how Mommy does it,” but quickly corrected herself and added, “that’s okay daddy, being a mommy is hard work.”

She’s right.  It’s hard work being a mommy – particularly after ten long years of war, repeated deployments, separations, and reintegrations. After that morning’s lunch-making challenge, I reread the post-deployment section of my toolkit and breathed a sigh of relief to know it was all part of the homecoming process.  Then I shelved the book knowing it will probably come in handy again soon.