Guest Perspective: Evolving Challenges of Deployment Communication

Guest Perspective: Evolving Challenges of Deployment Communication

Editor’s Note: As part of the Center for Deployment Psychology’s ongoing mission to provide high-quality education on military- and deployment-related psychology, we are proud to present our latest “Guest Perspective.” Intermittently, we will be presenting blogs by esteemed guests and subject matter experts from outside the CDP. This allows us to offer more insight and opinions on a variety of topics of interest to behavioral health providers.

As these blog entries are written by outside authors, one important disclaimer: all of the opinions and ideas expressed in them are strictly those of the author alone and should not be taken as those of the CDP, Uniformed University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), or the Department of Defense (DoD).

That being said, we’re very happy to offer a platform where we can feature these individuals and the information they have to share. We’d like to make this an ongoing dialogue. If you have questions, remarks, or would like more information on a topic, please feel free to leave comments below or on our Facebook page, and we’ll pass them along to the authors.

By Nick Cassan
Guest columnist

Most Service members see deployments as short term intervals, usually interruptions, in their lives. Family, however, is usually viewed as a constant. After all, we put ourselves in harm’s way to protect our families, communities, and way of life. Therefore, we seek to maintain our position and standing in our families while we’re away. Communicating with our families, friends, and loved ones while we are deployed is a critical concern for nearly every Service member. Many find it difficult to strike a balance between trying to manage personal and family relationships and remaining focused on the mission and the needs of fellow Service members while deployed. Below is an abbreviated look at how deployment communication has changed over my career, ways my family and I have tried to adapt, and a look at future deployment communication challenges.

I’ve deployed four times in my 21-year career with the Indiana Army National Guard. My job with the Guard has changed several times and my family and personal life has evolved. I first deployed to Bosnia a few months out of Basic Training and shortly after 9/11. That was followed very quickly by a short-notice deployment to participate in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003-2004. In 2008, I returned to Iraq where my unit conducted convoy operations. In 2011, I entered a quasi-deployment when I moved away for 18 months to complete Warrant Officer Flight Training. My most recent deployment was 2020-2021, again in Iraq. Though it grew over the years, my family was a constant, what changed dramatically between deployments was the way we communicated while I was gone.

My first trip overseas was to Bosnia in 2002, where I served as a turret gunner conducting escort operations for the task force commander. I tended to stay pretty busy and calling back home wasn’t a huge priority. I was 19-years-old and engaged to my high school girlfriend. I felt pretty secure in the relationship and didn’t feel pressed to call when it wasn’t convenient. I lived on a forward operating base in northern Bosnia with a few amenities. It was a short walk to the “internet café,” a small building operated by Morale, Welfare, Recreation (MWR), a DoD entity charged with providing leisure and comforts to troops.

At the internet café you could have access to a phone or internet-enabled computer. The lines usually weren’t too bad and a 20 minute wait with a 15 minute (or so) limit was reasonable. The option to video-call existed, but I don’t recall that ever working out. This was the era of dial-up internet and AOL Instant Messenger, after all. Something as elaborate as a video call would have to be coordinated in advance and with a significant time change, unpredictable lines, and low performance connections, video-calling tended to be more of a possibility than a reality. I made a call about once or twice a week and sent the occasional information-packed letter. Communication was slower and less frequent than on later deployments, but it tended to be more purposeful and valued because of its rarity.

My involvement in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw a much more limited capacity for communicating with family. My unit was tasked with conducting perimeter security at an airbase in southern Iraq. We did not have power, shelter, or running water. Phone calls simply weren’t a priority. In fact, the only way we kept up with the outside world was a nightly update sent out over the tactical radio system. We wrote letters if we had pen and paper handy, but we had no idea how long the mail was taking to be delivered. Conversations are very difficult with a 3-6 week lag. This wasn’t an ideal set-up for newlyweds!

A month into the deployment, our battalion headquarters announced they had set up a field phone. Twice a week the platoon had the option of sending folks in to the battalion area via a routine logistic truck that resupplied the perimeter. If you were selected, you got on the truck and rode for about an hour to get to the HQ. Once there, you waited in line for one of 3 “phones.” They were actually radios with phone-style handsets. A satellite uplink connected you to a theater communications operator. You would then request to be connected to your nearest military post. In my case it was Camp Atterbury, IN. From there the post operator would dial your requested number if it was local to them (long-distance calling was still a thing at the time) or to a 1-800 number for your calling card.

Because my wife was three hours away from Camp Atterbury and it was long distance, I had to choose the calling card option. There was no touchtone phone, so I had to wait until the automated requests to use a touchtone phone timed out and the card transferred me to their operator where I could, with a 3-4 second delay, give them the calling card number and the number I wished to call. If and when that daunting procedure was complete, I could talk to my loved one over a static filled line with several seconds of delay. Calls often cut out and the entire system was prone to unexpected and extended outages. Needless to say, calling home was not practical!

During the same deployment, my unit returned to Kuwait for about a month. I had limited access to local markets and was able to buy a Kuwaiti cell phone. This was a very expensive alternative to MWR facilities, but there was no wait and very little lag in the conversation. I saw a lot of guys buy these cell phones. Looking back, this was a bad idea. As I mentioned, it was very expensive. As I recall, it was a few hundred dollars to buy a very average phone and about one Kuwaiti Dinar per minute to call, which converted to a little over $3.00 per minute!

Aside from the staggering cost, the quality of conversation declined and it didn’t feel as special to call home. My calls no longer treated as an event; they were just calls. What was worse was my wife was able to call me and expected me to be able to talk when she called. I wasn’t well equipped to manage those expectations. At the time, I was a 21-year-old kid who didn’t fully grasp that my loved ones at home knew almost nothing of my overall situation and what I was doing every day. I didn’t see the news and didn’t have any reason to dwell on the overall impact such exposure may have had on them. I was simply annoyed at being pressed to spend so much money on the phone discussing trivialities I had no interest in.

After our month-long stint in Kuwait, my group headed back up into Iraq. Our operational tempo increased and I had less time to call. We had quick access to MWR phone tents, though. During that time I was able to have more regularly scheduled calls. Calls home tended to be almost exclusively to my new wife. For expediency, my family would contact her when they had something to pass along. Our calls would consist of her reciting messages and “briefing” the activities from back home. I would give a terse update, then give up my seat for the next guy in line. While this seems rather cold and clinical, it seemed to work pretty well for us. I was never one to have emotional, involved conversations in an open-air facility shoulder-to-shoulder with other guys. We maintained our call schedule supplemented by a few letters and cards.

When I returned to Iraq in 2008, communication hadn’t improved much. There was an option for satellite internet access in your room through a local contractor, but it was very expensive, low-quality, and not secure. In order to set that up, you needed a group of about 10 people to go in together to offset the thousands of dollars per month it cost. It wasn’t an option for me. There were MWR phone and internet options, but it was a large base and with my long shifts, it wasn’t practical to walk 30 minutes to an internet café to stand in line for a phone or computer. This deployment, I mostly sat at a desk doing convoy tracking. I had an email enabled computer in front of me and I used my military email like a messaging service. I even worked nights, so the time delay was negated. I could even pick up the phone on my desk and use the aforementioned process to get to a calling card to call home when there were no active missions out.

The constant communication back home and the boring mission with long hours made this my most mentally challenging deployment. I focused on getting home the whole time. In retrospect this likely contributed to a lack of focus on the mission and a reluctance to interact with those around me. Other factors were certainly involved, but with my ability to vent to my wife, I likely missed opportunities to seek peer support and establish person and professional relationships among my unit members. As a result, I felt socially isolated, which caused me to focus even more sharply on completing the deployment and getting home.

Beginning in June of 2011, I spent 18 months away from home on active duty for flight training. This wasn’t technically a deployment and isn’t included in my career count of four, but it was extended time away from home and family. I was in southern Alabama, too far to simply return home regularly. I was able to communicate daily during this time. It was the first time away that I had a child at home after becoming a father. The phone and internet was how I saw my first child develop. He was a little over a year old when I left. He changed a lot in the relatively short time I was gone. My wife and son were able to visit quite a bit, but the separation felt more like a deployment than a training event.

My most recent deployment took me to northern Iraq, this time as a senior warrant officer and a helicopter pilot. I had three children at home; they were 10, 6, and almost 2 when I left. It is a lot harder deploying with children at home. The casual communication on my terms was no longer an option. Fortunately, the means to communicate had advanced quite a bit since 2008. I was able to take my cell phone and personal devices with me. I didn’t have my phone number, but I had an app I could use when I was on base and in range of wifi. I could call, text, or video call anytime I wasn’t out on mission. Some deployed Service members took it a step further and subscribed to locally supported cell plans. They could get service outside the base, even in some of the other countries in which we operated. I wasn’t comfortable with potential security concerns and limited my usage to when I was in my room. I had also learned from past experience that it is critical to be able to disconnect from home to concentrate on the mission on my own terms.

It was very difficult to communicate with the kids, especially the younger ones. It is a challenge to have a conversation with a 2-year-old any time. To have one over the phone or on a video chat is nearly impossible. I found I had to have my wife continuously translate my daughter’s language for me. My wife was with her every day and knew what her various grunts and sounds meant like it was clear English. I was very frankly reminded I wasn’t the primary parent at the time. I felt like an outsider.

That feeling bled over to my communication with the older kids. They tended to treat talking on the phone as a secondary activity to whatever video game or other activity was dividing their attention or coming up next. Often their eyes were off screen and they gave short, non-descriptive answers. As I reflect, it likely wasn’t all that different from my feelings while I was deployed in Iraq 18 years earlier. I’m sure they couldn’t conceptualize that I wasn’t experiencing their everyday lives. I didn’t know their teachers, their new school friends, or what “ga-ga ball” was (I’m still not 100% sure on that one). I tended to keep conversations with them short and light focusing on supporting their achievements. I tried to help re-enforce her discipline, but that’s nearly impossible for someone on the phone.

The constant communication made reintegration much easier with my wife and two older kids. I was still a stranger to the 2-year-old. I think being able to talk with them was a good thing for the type of deployment I had. Even though I was gone and was busy, it wasn’t the expeditionary, fast-paced tempo of 2003, nor was it the mind-numbing boredom of 2008. I further think my wife and I were more prepared for the challenges and potential draw-backs of constant communication on the fourth deployment. Had it been our first, without the benefit of drawing on our collective experience it may not have gone so smoothly. She accepted when I was busy, did her best not to worry when there was time between calls, and didn’t ask me to over-engage.

It’s impossible to say how means of communication will change for those who are still deploying. Our current operations allow for wifi and cell phones, but they are already creating a significant security concern. Future deployers may see those means curtailed. It isn’t unreasonable to think someone just starting their career will see the opposite of what I have experienced. They may have instant and constant communication deploying as a young person, but a more dynamic peer or near-peer conflict would almost certainly result in the return to letter writing and restricted means of accessing the world. Those deployers would likely struggle with such a change, creating a challenge for military leaders in the future.

The opinions in CDP blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Nick Cassin is a 21-year member of the Indiana Army National Guard. He joined the Guard in June of 2000 and attended initial entry training in 2001. He first deployed to Bosnia as part of a peacekeeping operation in March 2002, followed by a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2003-2004 as a forward observer. Upon his return he began working as an Evansville Police officer and continuing college at the University of Southern Indiana (USI). Nick next deployed in support of Operation New Dawn in Iraq in 2008 as an operations non-commissioned officer. Afterward, he returned to the Evansville Police Department and his undergraduate studies, completing an Associate’s Degree in business from the USI. In June 2011, he was selected for warrant officer flight training and was subsequently appointed as a warrant officer pilot flying UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. Nick served as an assault helicopter pilot for C 1-137 Assault Helicopter Battalion in Shelbyville, Indiana for the next 10 years. He completed his undergraduate degree in business management from Western Governor’s University in 2015. Nick then completed a Master’s degree in social work from USI while working nights as a Crisis Intervention Police Officer and progressing as a pilot-in-command with the Guard. After completing his Masters in Social Work, Nick obtained a position as a Psychological Health Coordinator with the Indiana Army National Guard in October 2017. In June of 2020 he, once again, deployed to Iraq; this time in support of Operation Inherent Resolve as a pilot, Aviation Safety Officer, and Air Mission Commander. He logged over 200 combat flight hours in Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In September 2021 Nick commissioned as a Behavioral Health Officer and currently serves the Indiana National Guard in that role. Nick is a father of three and enjoys time with his family, coaching various kid’s sports, and home improvement projects.