Despite the current COVID-19 pandemic, our Service members are still preparing to deploy and stand the watch in critical locations around the world and now at home. The current crisis has made deployments even more disruptive with deployment extensions and last-minute activations as our nation and states embrace for the consequences of this pandemic while maintaining our overseas presence. The personal impact of these deployments is still significant for our Service members and their families, and especially for their children. My hope with this blog is to provide support and guidance by sharing lessons I learned throughout my deployment as a military doctor, and lessons learned from other military providers who served on multiple deployments.
Memories last a long time, especially when you have to bid farewell to your loved ones and dependents. For me, although it has been over a decade since my last deployment, I vividly remember the difficulties associated with being far away from my family. I can still see the faces of my then three year-old son running past airport security and being carried back by TSA agents when I departed, and of my one-and-a-half year-old daughter looking at me with wide-open eyes as she wondered who this man in uniform might be when I came back. I deployed on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in 2005. We left our homeport of Bremerton, Washington shortly after New Year’s Day. I had already been away for six weeks during Officer Indoctrination School and for one brief week on an aircraft carrier during my internship. But nothing comparable to the seven months that awaited me as part of this deployment. For me, this was going to be the longest time away from my wife and kids and I wasn’t sure what to expect or how to cope and help my family cope throughout this separation.
My first concern was connecting with them as much as possible. When you are on an aircraft carrier or at another location, this may not be as easy as it might seem. My initial plan was to use quarters and calling cards to make frequent calls to my family, but the pay phones were often broken and it was almost impossible to have privacy. After the first couple of weeks and over two hundred dollars spent on quarters and calling cards, it was clear that my communication plan was unsustainable. So one of the first lesson I learned is to always have several backup plans. The carrier has backup systems for communication, steering, and power. It behooves deployed Service members to have backup plans as well. By using email communication, I was better able to get an idea of what was going on at home and I could share pictures of my adventures with my family. However, I especially appreciated connecting with them without interruptions and in a quiet place during port calls.
My second lesson learned was that my wife was to be my advocate at home. She had pictures of me around the house and allowed me to talk briefly with our kids when I would call home. She was a magnificent source of strength by providing letters, pictures, and care packages throughout the deployment. However, due to the time it takes for a letter to arrive, sometimes the information in the letters had already been conveyed by phone call or email. Regardless, I think sending pictures, post cards and letters is another great way to maintain connection with one’s spouse and children.
My third lesson and tip revolves around holding onto a family tradition throughout the deployment. For my family, that tradition was story time. In our home it was a ritual to read a book or two before putting our kids to bed. However, being so far away did not allow for me to maintain that tradition. We tried to have me read over the phone on one occasion, but it just was not the same. Thankfully, several months into our deployment the Media Services Department aboard the Carrier offered us a chance to film story time videos that we could send back to our families. They created a homey set that included books, plush pillows and even a rubber duck. I was able to record about 10 different short books on video and send the recordings to my kids. My son still remembers these recordings vividly, and this was one way to hold the connection with the family. With today’s improved technology, one could probably make such recordings at home prior to going on deployment. However, there was something cathartic about making these recordings while I was deployed and underway. If video is not an option, one could produce audio recordings. These files are easily transferrable and can remind the child that the Service member is still thinking about them. The advantage to using audio files is that they take less space and one could make more stories on an audio file.
As I previously mentioned, I thought it would be important to include some of the tips and lessons learned from dual military service couples that have done multiple recent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. I would like to thank LTC Miller and LTC Capaldi for sharing their experiences with me and allowing me to include them in the following recommendations in this blog.
A fourth recommendation is about the importance of maintaining a positive attitude. Even if the deployment is strenuous or dangerous, it is important to try to convey a neutrality and/or positive outlook for children. Service members may choose to process some of their difficulties with their spouses or other colleagues, but one should always be mindful of the kid’s whereabouts.
A fifth recommendation is to maintain regular contact with the kids from multiple modalities. Some days it could be videos, phones, email, or mail. Notes and pictures can be appreciated even more by kids because they will have something that is tangible and might even smell like the service member. Telling your kids about some of your daily routines such as what movie you saw, the music you listened to or what you ate that day on deployment can also help them feel closer.
A sixth recommendation is to occasionally send the kids trinkets, souvenirs and other reminders from the places one visited. The stuffed animal or doll may remind them that you are thinking about them and give them a new appreciation about how kids around the world play with different toys. I fully endorse this recommendation and remember bringing camels, costumes, and books to help them appreciate the different cultures from around the world.
A seventh recommendation was about effective use of Facetime on a Forward Operating Base. There is a true benefit in being able to stay connected in real time. It is important to realize that the first couple of times this method of communication may not go smoothly, but one should stick with it. It is also important to be aware that sometimes the kids may not want to participate, especially with the time difference, so you can try again tomorrow. One of the possible challenges with Facetime is that the children could feel sad after seeing their parent so far away. This is understandable, and it is important that the parent or family member is ready to comfort the child afterwards. One suggestion was to do Facetime at night so that even if the child felt sad the parent could comfort them and put them to bed. It is important for the deployed member to be cognizant that the kids may not be ready for a talk at that time, and not to take it personally. One should also be aware of your mood, emotions or facial expressions on Facetime. If one is tired or having a bad day one may inadvertently scare or make the child sad. It makes sense for one to mindfully get yourself composed before reaching out to your family.
An eighth recommendation was the instrumentality of using care packages to maintain connection. Putting together a care package for the deployed Service member can be a family activity. It is a chance for the kids to learn about what the Service member likes and to keep the deployed parent in the minds of the child when the family is out shopping. Little arts and crafts and hand-drawn pictures are especially meaningful on a long deployment. It is also important to note that once a care box is finished, you can begin on the next one. I cherished the care packages I received, but the stay-at-home spouse can often feel overwhelmed that putting together another care package can sometimes be too much. The Service member should appreciate how different this is also for the stay-at-home spouse. The number of decisions that need to be made and exhausting planning should be recognized by the Service member. Remember that your spouse is also in the fight as they are supporting you on your mission. It makes sense to provide care packages when you can and not to worry about spending too little on the contents. These little rays of hope in a dark oasis can make a deployment more bearable. Having kids add drawings or write a letter can help them feel like they are doing their part in caring for the deployed Service member. The goal with these care packages is to maintain emotional connection. All three of us agreed that the pictures and handmade arts and crafts were extremely memorable.
A ninth lesson learned that was shared by all three of us is the importance of a strong social support system. Having friends, family and a church that you can rely on can be very beneficial before one goes on deployment. It is important that the spouse that stays home has maximal support so that they can take care of the kids and feel supported themselves.
Finally, Service members should understand the importance of being aware of the children’s experiences. As mentioned before flexibility is key in communication and in caring for the children at home. The children’s experiences may change over time and being present to answer questions and be supportive can be invaluable. One deployment might be easier for the child than another. Sometimes we may come up with an idea like writing letters to the Service member that do not resonate with the child. They might prefer to draw a picture or send them a song. It is important to be flexible in accepting your children’s expressions of love. It is important to be attuned to the child’s needs. Somedays they may not want to go to an afterschool class or some days they might want to just relax at home. On other days they may need to go out to a park or Museum. It is important to consider what you child needs.
Going on deployment can be an excellent professional opportunity for the Service member and an opportunity for the stay at home spouse to connect more with the kids, but it may also be quite challenging. Thus, it is important for the family to develop a deployment plan and that it is discussed prior to deploying. This plan should have several redundancies and back up plans as one can tell from the experiences of the providers that shared their deployment advice. The kids are our future and we need to do our best to care for them on and off deployment.
I want to thank Dr. Cynthia Miller, Dr. David Miller, LTC Vincent Capaldi, and Dr. Melinda Capaldi for providing invaluable material for this blog.
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.
Augusto Ruiz, Psy.D., is a Senior Military Internship Behavioral Health Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Ruiz is currently located at Walter Reed National Naval Medical Center.