By Carolyn EricksonMarch 6, 2009
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. - The return home from combat can often leave servicemembers feeling out of place with the most important people in their lives - their families.
"In deployment, Soldiers grow accustomed to a new lifestyle and a new 'family' - those buddies that bond together to defend each other," said Maj. Ken Williams, 14th Military Police Brigade chaplain. "This lifestyle change is prolonged and becomes familiar, i.e., the new normal."
The families also change while the Soldier is deployed.
"The family is a system," Williams said. "When one family member is absent, the whole system changes. All members of the family adapt to a new 'normal' way of life."
When the servicemember returns, the family may feel uncomfortable with each other, and the servicemember may withdraw from the family.
"There is anxiety on everyone's part, since all change creates stress," Williams said. "Anxiety just exists because of the changes that have occurred. This anxiety is often perceived as a threat. Therefore, the Soldier wants to be with those with whom he feels most secure and safe, the ones who protected him during the deployment."
Williams shared how his family coped with his return from a deployment.
"When I returned from deployment, I was very impatient," he said. "My family seemed to stress over insignificant issues. I remember thinking, 'Why do I have to stress over this stuff when I was more concerned about staying alive and taking care of oppressed people''
"Also, some of the family rules had changed," Williams continued. "So, I asked a lot of questions and did not argue with my wife about changes in the family order. Asking questions to gain understanding was a good approach and alternative to jumping to conclusions.
"We went to great lengths to communicate about decisions and issues," Williams said. "I let my wife continue to take the lead and she slowly integrated me back into my traditional role and responsibilities. Any abrupt change would have caused great anxiety and stress."
How long a servicemember takes to re-integrate with his or her family varies from person to person.
"Soldier transition is dependent upon the deployment experience, number of deployments and family stability observations from pre and post deployment," said Walter Clark, Medical Activity Social Work Services Division chief. "It is natural to initially to seek out the battle buddy from the commonly shared theater experience. The transition to spending increased time with family and friends will vary with Soldiers, dependent upon their experiences."
Soldiers can take proactive measures to prevent withdrawal from their families.
"Soldiers need to remember that their family is not the enemy," Williams said. "During the deployment, the family was still important, but the immediate need - safety and security - was provided by battle buddies.
"Soldiers, no longer on a deployment, must choose to reconnect with their family," Williams said. "They are no longer under an actual threat. So, gradually Soldiers need to interact with their primary emotional support system (family)."
Families can help ease their servicemember's transition.
"Be patient," Williams said. "Change back to a second new 'normal' takes time. Just as everyone adapted to the Soldier's absence, everyone must adapt to his or her return.
"Be intentional in planning the re-integration of the Soldier into the life of the family," Williams continued. "Use open and honest communication about plans, activities, and feelings. Give all members of the family the permission to share what is on their hearts without retribution."
Families should also be intentional about including Soldiers.
"Give the Soldier attention," Williams said. "Include the Soldier in activities, and return the Soldiers previous responsibilities gradually."
Clark emphasized the importance of gradually returning responsibilities, such as childcare or bill paying.
"If the Soldier is 'flooded,' the opposite effect can occur (instead of reintegration)," Clark said. "I suggest marital couples take a moment to actually ... write down specific transition responsibilities and expectations of each to avoid mixed expectations."
Families must also work to help the servicemembers shift their perception of who keeps them safe.
"The home needs to be perceived as the safest and most secure place," Williams said.
If a family notices their servicemember withdrawing despite their efforts, there are a few techniques to handle the situation.
"Don't nag, criticize or complain," Williams said. "Because of the residual effects of a self-preservationist lifestyle, these actions will be perceived as threats. The result will be either conflict or withdrawal."
Families should be patient and demonstrate kindness, care and compassion, Williams said. Families should show interest in and ask about the servicemember's activities while deployed, but allow them not to discuss unpleasant events.
"Give the Soldier some time and space," Williams said. "Remember, Soldiers have experienced some very traumatic events. They do need to talk about such events, but on their own timetable."
However, some servicemembers may display specific symptoms for more than 30 days that should serve as a "red flag" to the servicemember, command, friends or family members, Clark said.
"It is when withdrawal is demonstrated by intense avoidance behaviors, such as sustained isolative behaviors, evidenced emotional numbing, consistent efforts to detach from family/friends, and memory gaps of the deployment experience, then the Soldier is at higher risk to not to transition successfully," Clark said.
"Behaviors may also include an increased frequency and consumption of alcohol or other substances to suppress the emotional memory recall (flashbacks) issues, increased computer/video game exposure and other disassociative activities to avoid ... responsibilities, and increased or overly responsive agitation ... to everyday family events," Clark continued.
If families feel they need outside help to cope with their servicemember's withdrawal, they should seek counseling through Social Work Services, and find information at www. myarmylifetoo.com.
Military One-Source will also provide individual and family sessions at no cost off-post, 800.342.9747.
Servicemembers can be seen confidentially in behavioral health in the medical treatment facility at 596.1507 and can seek out initial support and referral with the unit family life consultant or their unit chaplain.