ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Surviving a loved one's deployment can be a challenge for everyone at home. Even family members who have gone through many separations say that time apart is still difficult to process.
Lengthy TDY can also pose many of the same challenges. Juggling responsibilities and roles amidst the day-to-day life of school, work and home is often more difficult when your partner or loved one is no longer by your side to share in these duties or offer support.
However, Army spouses and family members develop creative, loving ways of coping with the stress and anxiety that comes with each deployment.
"With three deployments in our twenty-eight year military career, each deployment after the first one prepares you a little more on ways to strive on," said Dianne Crawford, wife of APG Senior Commander Maj. Gen. Bruce T. Crawford.
Crawford suggests that preparing yourself for an approaching deployment can help your family cope with separation when it comes. Preparing together before he or she leaves can strengthen the bond between you.
"Be prepared; your spouse or service member is essential to help you organize and be ready before they leave," Crawford said. "Establish a list of contact numbers of people in the unit, key contacts in the organization. Ask questions. Meet and get to know other spouses who will be sharing the same experience. Maintain a connection with at least one other spouse and someone in the organization who you can call periodically."
Other preparation tips before/during deployment:
Keep a routine and maintain a schedule. Staying busy allows time to go by faster.
Stay physically active.
Reach out to loved ones and let them know you may need their support over the coming weeks and months. Let them know how they can best support you during hard times - whether it's a hug, phone call or night out.
Search the local area for military family support groups.
Go easy on yourself. Have cereal for dinner one night or order in. Ask a friend for help or call a babysitter and give yourself a break from child-care. Remember, no one feels at their best all the time.
Talking to children
Crawford also suggests talking to your children about the impending separation; checking in with them to see how they are feeling and what they think about mom or dad's absence may increase their resiliency during times of stress.
"Deployments affect children in different ways at any age. Army Community Services (ACS) is a great resource. Talk to your children frequently about the deployment…what it going to happen in the coming months and help them deal with their emotions," Crawford said.
Other creative ways to help kids deal with deployments include:
Make an "All About Mom/Dad's Deployment Wall." Include a map so that your child can see where mom or dad is in the world. Or include two clocks in two different time zones.
Help children make a "special moments" keepsake box or scrapbook where they can store memories they want to share with their parent when he or she returns. Include items like photos, awards and artwork.
Craft a deployment countdown calendar that helps a child track the number of days until they are reunited with their parent.
Allow your child to include a letter or memento inside their parent's Army care package.
Staying in touch
"Technology, [such as] Skype and online videos, are great ways to stay connected, when available and possible," Crawford said.
Apps such as "Couple" and "mymilitarylife" are free and available to anyone with a smartphone or internet access.
"Couple" features real-time messaging and video share, chat, a private timeline to build shared history, 'thumbkiss', which allows users to touch their phones' screens simultaneously and produce a vibration, and games and drawings that can be done together from thousands of miles away.
"Mymilitarylife" was created by the National Military Family Association and helps users manage deployment, as well as career and school decisions, moving, and transitioning out of the military.
Additionally, popular websites like Pinterest and personal Army spouse blogs are chock full of ideas to help families survive time apart.
Although technology is a great, convenient way to stay in touch, sometimes an old-fashioned hand-written note can do wonders to remind a deployed family member how much you care and think about them.
Erica Hamblen, wife of Lt. Col. Stewart Hamblen, is a fan of this style of communication when her husband is deployed.
"One thing I have done for each deployment is to buy a stack of cards - all types, funny, romantic, etc.," Hamblen said. "I buy enough to send one card for every week of the deployment.
"I mail out one card per week and always on the same day; in it I maybe put a photo or just some little tidbit of what was going on that particular day."
Hamblen says it's the little aspects of living together that she misses most when her husband is away.
"Despite being able to talk on the phone or video chat I feel that it is the very small day-to-day interactions I miss the most with my husband, and so by sending the cards weekly I try to capture some of that," she said. "There is an added bonus that my spouse almost always has something when it is time for mail call! I also get a kick out of seeing the stack of cards dwindle, nice little visual representation of the fact our separation is almost at an end."
Other ways of staying connected during deployments or long separations include:
Give them something of yours to cuddle or touch. A shirt, a stuffed animal, or pillowcase are all good options.
Surprise them with an item that smells like you. Smell is a powerful sense that triggers memory and stimulates an emotional response.
Make a special gift that includes an inside joke or memory shared that only the two of you understand.
Various resources offer more information about family support and deployment assistance, including www.armyonesource.com.