Staff Perspective: Military Family Deployment Cycle Challenges

Staff Perspective: Military Family Deployment Cycle Challenges

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D.

Recently I reviewed the current literature on military families and deployment in preparation for updating the Center for Deployment’s (CDP) online course, The Impact of Deployment on Families and Children. While this is a topic that I’ve been teaching since I first joined the CDP almost nine years ago, I was excited when I ran across an article that summarized the deployment cycle challenges that military families face in a new way.

Yablonsky, Barbero, and Richardson (2016) used qualitative metasynthesis to better understand the course of deployment from the family perspective.  They analyzed 21 qualitative research reports published between 2004-2013 and determined that the deployment cycle is experienced by military families in four temporal domains: pre-deployment, deployment, transposement, and post-deployment. (The authors used the term “transposement” to describe the experiences of at-home family members during Service members’ deployments.)  While Service members and family members share pre-deployment and post-deployment transitions, they go through deployment/transposement transitions in parallel.

Pre-Deployment: “Getting Ready”

Traditionally, the pre-deployment stage is known as a time of “getting ready,” both for the Service member and their family.  Service members are beginning to think about deployment-related issues while family members are starting to mentally prepare for the Service members’ absence.  According to Yablonsky et al. (2016), during this period all family members felt uncertainty about the future, had a need to complete tasks in preparation for the deployment, and experienced emotional distancing as the deployment date approached.

  • Facing uncertainty about the future: Families don’t always know the precise start date of a deployment, which can make preparation challenging. Additionally, many times families don’t know the length of the deployment or exactly where the Service member will be located, both of which can increase feelings of uncertainty.
  • Attending to tasks: Both the Service member and the home-front family need to complete certain tasks before the deployment occurs. The Service member generally spends increased time training, while the family is making arrangements for household tasks to be completed during the upcoming separation (e.g., arranging childcare, obtaining a power of attorney, etc.).
  • Emotional distancing: Many families experience a sense of emotional distancing prior to deployment. Some Service members may focus more on bonding with teammates rather than on connecting with their family. Similarly, some family members may begin to detach and start to live their day-to-day lives as if the Service member is already gone. This emotional distancing is a natural tendency as many people find it easier to say goodbye if they are less connected emotionally.

Deployment: “Staying Engaged”

During the deployment stage, the Service member is physically dislocated from their family.  Challenges faced by Service members during this period revolve around their ability to remain focused on the mission while staying engaged with their family back home. 

  • Focusing on the mission: Once Service members deploy, they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment with different routines (and often safety concerns). It’s important that they remain focused on the mission, which sometimes comes at the expense of thinking about their families back home.
  • Building a surrogate family: While deployed, Service members generally develop a close bond with their comrades, who become an important source of support.
  • Connecting with family back home: Service members are able to maintain a connection with the family at home, both through communication and through actively thinking about them. While there are some challenges associated with communication during a deployment (both logistical and emotional), the ability to communicate during a deployment can greatly enhance a sense of connection for military families.

Transposement: “Altering the Family”

The transposement period for families occurs simultaneously to the deployment period for Service members.  For military families, this period is a time of adapting to an altered family unit – one that does not include the Service member.

  • Moving forward: Families at home focus on moving forward as an altered family unit. Successfully navigating this transition is complicated by a variety of feelings related to the Service member’s absence, ranging from loneliness to fear for the Service member’s safety.
  • Taking on new roles: One significant effect of the Service member’s departure is the burden of additional roles for spouses and children at home. This can be very stressful, particularly if family members need to take on roles they have not mastered (e.g., managing finances). At the same time, meeting these challenges can be a source of pride and lead to increased self-confidence, both for spouses and children.
  • Connecting with peer families: Similar to the way that Service members seek support from their comrades while deployed, family members at home also need support during this time. While they might already have a support system in place, they often seek out connections to those who are going through similar experiences as a way to facilitate coping during the deployment.
  • Connecting with the deployed Service member: Communicating with a deployed Service member can be both challenging and rewarding. Family members may feel a need to be ready at a moment’s notice for any communication that may come from the Service member, and thoughts of the Service member can bring both comfort and anxiety. But as noted earlier, the ability to communicate during a deployment can greatly enhance a sense of connection for military families.

Post-Deployment: “Reintegrating the Family”

The post-deployment, or reintegration, stage is generally known as an exciting but challenging time for Service members and families.  The Service member returns home, reunites with their family, and then begins the process of reintegrating into their family, who may have a whole new routine and way of operating.  This is a period that is often filled with anticipation and mixed emotions.

According to Yablonsky et al. (2016), during this period all family members were focused on managing expectations and readjusting family roles. They also noted that both Service members and other family members had a need for understanding and appreciation for the sacrifices that were made during the deployment.

  • Managing expectations: Reuniting after an extended separation might seem like an easy transition.  While filled with joy and relief, many families also cite this time in the deployment cycle as the most stressful. The homecoming itself is often a joyful moment, but families then need to adjust to living together again. Reintegration can be considered a process that occurs over time that requires persistence, patience, and realistic expectations.
  • Readjusting roles: The return of the Service member can lead to disruption in role acquisition/relinquishment. Acknowledging changes that have occurred during the deployment separation (and being open to discussion about them) can facilitate a healthy transition.
  • Needing understanding and appreciation: During the reintegration period, all family members need to feel understood. Those families who are able to engage in open communication about their experiences during the separation express more satisfaction with their relationships. Similarly, all family members need appreciation for their accomplishments and sacrifices during the deployment. If this doesn’t happen, resentments may arise.

As noted by the authors, much of the research on military families and deployment has focused on family experiences in the context of Service member activities. As a military spouse, I know first-hand that the challenges faced by at-home family members and Service members differ during a deployment separation.  I was excited to see a model conceptualizing the “transposement” period as a parallel, yet discrete, experience, and I look additional research in this area in the future.

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.

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D., is a Senior Military Behavioral Health Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.


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