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A soldier returning home.

Complex emotions often lie beneath the joy of a soldier's homecoming, and military families of the Iraq War are no exception.

Extended deployments and coming home: how to cope

How to cope

By Deane Morrison

In Normal Rockwell's painting "The Homecoming," a World War II-era soldier stands quietly as his joyous family rushes to greet him. In reality, more complex emotions often lie beneath the joy, and military families of the Iraq War are no exception. In mid-April, tours of duty were extended for 20,000 soldiers, regular Army and reservists alike. We asked a couple of stress experts with the 88th Regional Readiness Command (RRC) at Fort Snelling--both with University connections--what it's like for soldiers and their families when the return home is delayed, when it finally happens, and during the long anxious time in between.

Extended deployment

When a tour of duty is extended, soldiers experience a natural conflict of loyalties between unit and country on one hand and home and family on the other. "There's conflict especially at this time of year because of first communions, weddings, and so on," says Maj. Cynthia Rasmussen, a nurse practitioner who also works with veterans and U of M nurse practitioner students at the Minneapolis VA Hospital. "Families have plans for special occasions, and soldiers feel disappointment in having their tours extended, as we all would feel if our plans got changed." A 90-day extension was tough on a particular soldier and his wife, says Lt. Col. Mary Erickson, who together with Lt. Col. Susan Whiteaker runs the Operational Stress Team for the Surgeon's Office at the 88th RRC. An occupational therapist, Erickson is director of clinical education in the University's Program on Occupational Therapy. "The soldier had left Baghdad and gone to Kuwait, then had to go back to Iraq," she says. "Soldiers understand their missions, but he has a daughter getting married in the spring."

Erickson discovered the advantages of open communication firsthand more than a decade ago. Mobilized during Desert Storm, she left behind two preteen boys. When she got back, she found dirty laundry and, like any other mother, did it. But when the kids found out, they let her know that things had changed. They now did their own laundry, thank you.

The extensions may affect married soldiers more than single ones, says Rasmussen. Not surprisingly, having children can make it more difficult when deployment is extended. But little things can also play a big role and the emotional value placed on otherwise insignificant items can be enormous. "I've heard that a lot of soldiers who were planning to come home had already given away a lot of their comfort items, like blankets or things people have sent them," Rasmussen recalls. Or, a soldier may give away something needed in Iraq, such as the nets for personal belongings that hang by the bedside during lights out, holding items that would come in handy if one had to get up in the middle of the night.

Long dark night of the soldier's family

The big question for a soldier's family is always, "How do I keep on keeping on?" says Erickson. She and her colleagues work with families to devise coping mechanisms and strategies for getting through the time of absence. It's an exercise in dealing with the unknown, but family members can reduce the strain by living one day at a time and altering their environments to put themselves more at ease. Structuring the day to have something positive to look forward to helps, but it's not easy for those in waiting mode. Simply waiting is not an option, though. When a soldier leaves, another family member may have to learn about family finances or how to survive as a single parent. Erickson gives the example of a spouse on the homefront who suddenly must deal with a child learning to drive. What ground rules to set? It can help to talk about situations like that with the distant parent, or perhaps find another person who can fill in as a secondary parent. Sometimes, nonrelatives in the community can help out. "I've had churches come to a family and ask what the dad normally did with the kids," says Erickson. "Maybe he'd take them to baseball games or fishing. It's important to keep family rituals going. Even before the soldiers leave, we help create a strategy to support the family." The payoffs reach beyond the emotional well-being of the family members stateside. "Soldiers are sacrificing in serving their country," says Erickson. "People can serve their country by serving these families. When families are stabilized, soldiers are free to focus on their mission, and then they're safer."

Crafting heat shields for reentry

Preparing for homecoming ought to be the easiest part of any extended absence, but soldiers, their families, and friends often find that they've changed--and not in sync. Families and soldiers often ponder weighty questions like "Do I fit in?," "Do I still belong?," and "Will my soldier still love me?" Young soldiers, especially, can find their values at odds with those of friends. "I hear from some young folks that their perspective on life and what's important has changed," says Rasmussen. "Some friends of soldiers think that shopping for the right jeans is the main thing in life, rather than issues of life and liberty." Little issues may escalate if not dealt with swiftly. One soldier's mother told Rasmussen that during her daughter's deployment, she had had the home bathroom to herself for 14 months. When her daughter comes back, she predicted, "she'll hog the bathroom counter with her things." But this mother had already done the best thing possible to prepare for domestic conflict: she had talked to her daughter about it. Erickson discovered the advantages of open communication firsthand more than a decade ago. Mobilized during Desert Storm, she left behind two preteen boys. When she got back, she found dirty laundry and, like any other mother, did it. But when the kids found out, they let her know that things had changed. They now did their own laundry, thank you. "Maintaining family rituals is important, but when they change, it's good to let the soldier know," says Erickson. Soldiers with small children may come home to find the kids either don't know them anymore or are angry with them, says Rasmussen. Again, the key is to anticipate the situation and work through it, trusting that time will eventually reset the balance of life. Also, families shouldn't be afraid to ask for what they need. "We give families permission to say 'no' to extended family, friends, or the media when a soldier comes home," says Rasmussen. "For example, a family may hold an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. and then keep the rest of their time for themselves." While there's a debate whether the psychological needs of soldiers and their families are being met, Rasmussen says the Army offers a lot of support, in terms of both people and programs. Her unit, the Army Reserve's 785th Combat Stress Company, has 11 teams around Iraq to help alleviate combat stress at the front lines. Rasmussen herself is currently on orders at the 88th RRC. "We're now able to provide full-circle support for soldiers and families to deal with the stress of deployment," says Erickson. "At the 88th RRC, we also work closely with casualty assistance. A number of times I've provided support for families and next-of-kin notifiers. Sometimes they need support, too--they are regular soldiers who have additional training for that task, not behavioral health specialists who deal with difficult emotional situations as a regular part of their job." She adds that many U of M students are in the Army Reserve, whose benefits include education. In spite of the best efforts of professionals and military families, returning soldiers sometimes have needs that are just plain hard to anticipate. "I had soldiers come back to a demobilization site at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin," Erickson recalls. "I greeted them as they were going to the mess hall, and they said they were sick to death of chicken. I also did a homecoming event, and one family told their soldier they had planned a big chicken dinner for him. He just stared at them. "'What do you want?' they asked him. "'Pizza,' he said."