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For my family

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Capt.) Kelly Stahl
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Chaplain
Departing for a foreign location can be a challenging time for many families. Deployment usually won't make a family stronger if it isn't strong from the beginning. If there are problems with finances, health, communication or trust, adding thousands of miles of distance will only aggravate things. Tensions rise toward the approaching departure date and families can begin to naturally detach from one another; thinking, whether subconsciously or not, that this will help ease the pain of separation. I look back over my departure and I wonder what I could have done better to prepare my family for the time away.

My wife, on the other hand, was a real trooper. She came up with many ways to connect our two young girls to the looming separation. She filled a jar with chocolate kisses and had me write on the jar with paint, 'Kisses from Daddy' so that each day I was gone they could have a special treat from me. She collected the cardboard from paper towel rolls, painstakingly painting some purple and others pink, and cut them into half-inch circles, shaped like hearts. Then she strung them on string so that our girls could each tear one off every day as a countdown until I return. She also made some photo books online and filled them with pictures of me and of the girls. Each girl has her own book; Mom had me write a little letter to each one and put it in the book. I could go into much more detail about the projects and ways she prepared herself and our family for deployment. She is amazing.

Even with all the preparation, there were times of anxiety or frustration -- not with the family per se, but with scheduling the necessary appointments and desperate attempts to tie up all loose ends before heading out. Those times of stress made it easy to snap at the family and bark like a junk yard dog. That is exactly what a family needs to hear just before leaving, right? But how many can relate to that sort of thing happening in the final countdown to departure? Then you feel guilty for not letting little situations just roll off your back. Are there some things we can do to prepare ourselves better so that we may cherish our time? What can I do now that I'm here, to create unity and let them know that they are treasured and missed? Here are a few ideas that may be useful right now.

First, write a letter or card. Jack's Place, the Chapel Airmen Center, has free cards you can use to write a short note. Tell your family how proud you are of their sacrifice. Let them know you are OK and that you miss them. I know we live in an age of social media, but an old-fashioned card with a handwritten message will show that you cared enough to take some time out of your day to think of them. Besides, it is free to send! How much easier can it get?

Next is some advice that a great friend and neighbor back home gave me who has deployed many times. He said, "Don't criticize your wife's decisions. I did on my first deployment and I regret it." That is sound advice. She is back home making the best decisions she can under the pressure of running the household, and may be doing some things for the first time that my family had been accustomed to me doing. I may have made different decisions, but I need to support her and let her know I am supporting her. This applies to husbands left back home, too.

Now, what can I do when I set my sights on heading back home? Redeployment has its own set of issues and problems. It will not all be love, roses and romance -- but do make sure at the very least there are love, roses and romance! Coming home to a family that has done many things without you and survived on its own can be difficult. Having patience with them is important. I often get a few chuckles with a question I ask folks that are heading home. The question was originally posed to me by an old sage. He asked, "Where do you find a turtle with no legs?" The answer is simple: Right where you left it. The problems and frustrations that you may have had before you left are like that turtle. They are still there, right where you left them. There may be a honeymoon at first and things may seem great because of the excitement of being home, but soon those legless turtles will start popping up. Don't be shocked when you see them, and don't step over them. Face them. Seek help in getting them taken care of through a chaplain, Military One Source, Mental Health, local pastor or the Military Family Life Consultant (MFLC).

One of the most important things we can do for our families can be summed up in a story I recently heard about a man while he was growing up. His father had a sign in their front yard by the driveway that read, 'Return with honor.' He said that he didn't really appreciate the sign until his adult years, but it really sums up how we should live in every area of our lives. What we do in the deployed location matters. We serve our nation, we obey the orders of those over us and we need to model good character to those around us. When we get home, we should be able to look our coworkers, our family, our spouses and children in the eye and know that we have returned with honor. I know I want that for my family.