From the author's personal collection
The first time my husband deployed was just a few short weeks after we got married. We had a son who was three and a half at the time, yet the three of us had never actually lived together. To say we received more than our share of doubts that our family would “make it” would be putting it lightly. We would have loved to live together, but thanks to a combination of my husband’s frequent moves as he progressed through flight school, imminent deployments, where our families and my support system lived, and my desire to go to graduate school, living together was not in the cards for us yet. We made the conscious decision to “geo-bach.”
“Geo-bach” is short for geographic bachelor, an unofficial term used to describe the decision made by military families to live in separate geographic locations. Although this may seem unusual, and is definitely not the most enjoyable experience, military families may choose to geo-bach for many reasons including personal preference, job immobility, not wanting to pull their children out of school, or access to specific medical care. Geo-baching is a decision made by the family, which is different than an unaccompanied tour, where the decision is made by the military.
Although geo-baching meant that our personal lives felt somewhat disjointed, we shuffled back and forth between our two cities when we could, and built a relationship based on our ability to communicate. Despite the strong communication we had built over years of living apart, that first deployment turned our worlds upside down. While my husband was flying around the Middle East with (extremely) intermittent access to email and next to no access to phones, I was getting my Master’s in Social Work and taking care of our son. I decided it was the perfect time to delve into military social work classes and watched as the vignettes and case studies in my textbooks lifted off the pages and became my life.
Saying a deployment begins and ends when the Service member leaves and returns would not fully capture the deployment cycle. The deployment cycle includes pre-deployment, deployment, and reintegration. But those phases are not wrapped up neatly and presented with a lovely red, white, and blue bow. They are messy and timelines can change at any point. "Oh, you are deploying tomorrow? Sorry, the weather is bad, we are changing it to next week. Wait, wait, you thought you were going home in two days? You’ve been extended indefinitely. Guess you are missing your kid’s birthday despite promising you would be there". Although pre-deployment ends when the Service member deploys, and deployment ends when they return home, reintegration does not have an expiration date and can last several years past the Service member’s return (Gewirtz et al., 2011).
Each phase comes equipped with its own unique stressors and challenges, both for the Service member and for their family. Some of the more common obstacles during pre-deployment include anticipation of loss and denial, extended periods of time away due to increased training, getting affairs in order (e.g., turning off cable, car maintenance, finding someone to take care of your pets, writing your will, establishing power of attorney), mental and physical distance, and increased arguments (Pincus et al., 2001). The challenges evolve and continue through the deployment as the family works to adjust to new responsibilities, a disruption in routine, changes in children’s behavior (e.g., acting out at school, bed-wetting, depression), ambiguous loss, concern about the Service member’s safety, missed milestones, and decreased communication (Boss, 2004; Faber et al., 2008) . Finally, during reintegration, families deal with roles shifting once again, ambiguous presence, reestablishing relationships, managing trauma from the deployment, alienation, and preparing to deploy again (Boss, 2004; Faber et al., 2008). This overview is quite simplistic and a more detailed explanation can be found here: https://deploymentpsych.org/blog/staff-perspective-military-family-deployment-cycle-challenge.
Despite knowing the challenges to expect during my husband’s first deployment, I could not seem to close the hole that he left. I had to function as a single parent—balancing graduate school, a child, and my concerns for my husband’s safety—but I hesitated to fill his role. It felt like if I found ways to fill that hole, then he was truly gone. I would have to accept his absence. Ambiguous loss, one of the challenges mentioned above, is a term coined by Dr. Pauline Boss (1999). It can occur when an individual is physically absent, but psychologically present, such as during a deployment, or when there is psychological absence, but physical presence, such as if a Service member comes home with PTSD or a TBI. Boss (2020) describes it as being different “from ordinary loss in that there is no verification of death or no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be.”
During that first deployment, I struggled through ambiguous loss. In hindsight, I believe geo-baching played a large role in this. Although it necessitated a strong ability to communicate, it also made me feel like a deployment would feel mostly the same as our daily experiences. We were used to being apart, this should be no big deal. I knew all the things I was supposed to do to help get through a deployment, but I didn’t think I needed them. I was convinced we had it covered. But deployment was dramatically different.
As Boss (2020) explains, a component of ambiguous loss is that there is a concern about whether or not the individual will come back and if things will return to how they used to be. I spent every day of my husband’s first deployment worrying if he was going to die. Would today be the day the doorbell rang and I was handed a flag? During that first deployment, my husband’s unit frequently went into what is referred to as “River City”. This is another unofficial military term, which means a communication blackout. River City can last for days, weeks, or longer. You don’t generally know when it will happen, it just happens. But why it happened is was what I couldn’t accept. A unit could go into River City as a drill. No big deal. River City could be a security measure. Okay, this is a little scary, but I’m sure it will all be fine. Or it could be due to what frightened me the most: because there was a casualty and the unit was working to ensure the family was notified first. My husband would send me an email in the morning saying he was going on a flight and would email that night when he landed. And a day would pass. Then two. Then a week.
On the inside, I felt like it took all my strength to hold myself together. On the outside, I was focused on smiling, acting like life was normal for the sake of my son, and getting through graduate school. Boss (2020) recommends family- and community-based interventions to help an individual cope with ambiguous loss. The military, in general, works to provide community-level support to families through Family Readiness Groups (FRGs), the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP), and less officially organized support through the Service member’s unit, squadron, battalion, etc. These are invaluable resources. They give the family access to resources, support, friends who are facing the same challenges, and education about the deployment cycle, among other components.
However, because we were geo-baching, I didn’t have direct access to any of these resources. My husband’s squadron was in Virginia. I was in Massachusetts where the active duty component is largely invisible, at less than 0.006% of the state’s population (www.governing.com, 2020). Active duty military families exist all over the country, even if we aren’t seen. Whether it’s parents waiting anxiously by their phone for their deployed daughter to call, a sister trying to get through calculus while her brother is in Afghanistan, a child wondering if their parent will make it home for a birthday, or in my case, a wife and mother persistently refreshing her email, hoping for confirmation that my husband was still alive. We are everywhere. And sometimes, we need help and don’t know where to find it.
For ways to get support or ways to support military families you may know, check out the resources below:
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective 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.
Danielle Carrier, MSW, LCSW, is an active duty military spouse, clinical social worker, and research associate at the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland.
Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: Living with frozen grief. Harvard Health Publications Group.
Boss, P. (2004). Ambiguous loss research, theory, and practice: Reflections after 9/11. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 551-566.
Boss, P. (2020). About ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss: Pioneered by Pauline Boss, PhD. Retrieved February 7, 2020, from https://www.ambiguousloss.com/.
Faber, A. J., Willerton, E., Clymer, S. R., MacDermid, S. M., & Weiss, H. M. (2008). Ambiguous absence, ambiguous presence: A qualitative study of military reserve families in wartime. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(2), 222-230. doi:10.1037/0893-3188.8.131.52
Gewirtz, A. H., Erbes, C. R., Polusny, M. A., Forgatch, M. S., & DeGarmo, D. S. (2011). Helping military families through the deployment process: Strategies to support parenting. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42(1), 56-62. doi:10.1037/a0022345
Military active-duty personnel, civilians by state. Governing. Retrieved February 7, 2020, from https://www.governing.com/gov-data/public-workforce-salaries/military-civilian-active-duty-employee-workforce-numbers-by-state.html
Pincus, S., House, R., Christenson, J., & Adler, L. (2001). The emotional cycle of deployment: A military family perspective. U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, April/June 2001, 15-23.