FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Deployments are a challenge all military Families eventually face, and few know that better than Chap. (Col.) Tony Petros, Fort Campbell’s senior command chaplain.
Throughout his 24-year Army career, Petros has deployed four times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. Along the way, he and his wife, Tricia, have helped an estimated 1,500 Soldiers and Families through their own deployments across four installations.
“It’s important for military Families to be ready for deployment, because it’s going to come at some point or another,” Petros said. “Even if it’s for a JRTC rotation or a training event, it’s going to push Families in a direction where they have to be separated from each other for a much longer time frame than they may be used to.”
During his first deployment in 2003, Petros learned how important it is for Families to stay connected even if thousands of miles separate them.
“Being apart was the greatest challenge because Tony is my best friend,” Tricia said. “The first assignment was definitely harder because there were a lot more unknowns. We didn’t know when he was coming back for sure, and the communication wasn’t as good because people didn’t have cellphones. We tried to time it [with the landline], but I would definitely feel guilty if I wasn’t home when he called because I knew he could only call at certain times.”
That inspired the Petros Family to find other ways to keep in touch, including some creative solutions for their four children.
“When we had younger kids, we used Build-A-Bear,” Tricia said. “Tony spoke into their voice boxes, and every night in all of our kids’ bedrooms I would hear him saying things like ‘Hey Marissa, this is your Daddy. I hope you had a good day,’ and he’d talk for about a minute to each of them.”
Over the years deployment grew more familiar for the Petros Family and their children, now between the ages of 15 and 24. But for many young Soldiers and Families they worked with, it was a frightening hurdle to overcome.
“One year on Christmas, I received a phone call from a spouse in 3rd Brigade at the 82nd Airborne Division,” Petros said. “Her husband had been gone for 30 days on a nine-month deployment, and right then it hit me that we needed to establish a Deployed Spouses Group. We kicked one off that very next month, and it led to more than a year-and-a-half of DSGs taking place at Fort Bragg.”
The Petros Family began hosting DSG meetings in 2009, along with weekend retreats through the U.S. Army’s chaplain-led Strong Bonds program. They have organized events at four installations: Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Fort Drum, New York; and Fort Campbell.
“We would use the Strong Bonds events as momentum builders for the weekly Deployed Spouses Group,” Petros said. “I think the strength of those groups is that facilitators can address the common struggle everyone’s going through. They’re all in the same situation: Dealing with separation, maintaining structure and peace in the house on their own and carrying those challenges together.”
According to Petros, both programs will resume on the installation if division headquarters, or an entire brigade is deployed. In that case, DSG attendees can expect an hour of Family mealtime and an hour of group discussion with child care provided.
“DSG conversations are more personalized to what people are going through,” Tricia said. “We’d talk about what the kids were doing one week, and the next we’d talk about exercise. I think it’s important that they aren’t as formal. We all sat in a circle, and it was just all of us out there giving our experiences so we could hear from each other about getting through deployment.”
Families who participated in DSGs often established connections to chapel programs, Tricia said.
Strong Bonds retreats support those efforts by bringing spouses to locations like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina or the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center for formal training and leisure time.
“Most of the time Strong Bonds retreats are within two hours of the installation,” Petros said. “There’s approved curriculum we can use such as the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” “The Five Love Languages,” and “The Speed of Trust.”
The Petros Family has also provided counseling sessions to those navigating deployments, and through their personal experiences they’ve developed a number of coping strategies.
“Any communication Families do prior to a deployment is really important in establishing a plan,” Petros said. “There are so many resources on every installation to raise awareness of what to expect, and for them to take that information and discuss what’s going to work well for them as a Family is going to create a lot more certainty and help them through that time they’re apart.”
Petros recommends Soldiers and Families talk to Army Community Service, their unit’s ministry team and their Soldier and Family Readiness Group. They can also consult Military OneSource for a list of deployment planning and support resources.
“We gave our kids predictability and honesty about where Dad was going and how long he’d be there for,” Tricia said. “Depending on the ages of the kids you’d need to be mindful of how much you share, but it helps for them to have an understanding.”
Once a Soldier has deployed, Petros said connections are key. He recalled using FaceTime to pray and eat dinner with his Family to create a sense of normalcy, and said it was important to reach out on dates like birthdays and anniversaries.
“It’s really about helping Families establish patterns and things they’ll benefit from during that time of being separated,” he said. “I think old school letter writing goes a long way. I really appreciated getting handwritten letters on deployment, and I think Tricia and the kids did too.”
During moments when Families can talk on the phone, Tricia said it is helpful to have a list of conversation starters in case there weren’t any new life updates.
“We would print out a sheet of questions to ask your spouse about things you may never have known,” she said. “If you get that extra time, you could ask them to tell you something about their neighborhood where they grew up, for example. It really spurred on some great conversations when we might have thought we already talked about everything.”
Tricia also recommended volunteering as a healthy way for spouses to make use of their time during deployments, and said it helps to plan a schedule for Family activities on the two weeks of block leave after a deployment.
“Trying not to stop my life because my spouse was deployed was important for me,” she said. “From a spouse’s perspective there are plenty of things than can be difficult during a deployment, but if you do everything you can ahead of time to be well-prepared when those situations come up you can make it through them.”