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National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Department of Veterans Affairs

Coping When a Family Member Has Been Called to War

A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet
by Julia Whealin, Ph.D. & Ilona Pivar, Ph.D.

When a family member goes to war, the impact upon those left at home can be daunting. There is often tremendous uncertainty about the dangers that exist where the loved one is being deployed and about when he or she will return. Concerns may be intensified as TV news programs emphasize threats, such as chemical or biological warfare, scud missile attack, and environmental destruction. In addition to having to adjust to the loved one’s absence, the families of those who have been deployed may live in constant fear of harm to their loved one.

The Emotional Cycle of Deployment

When a loved one is deployed, fluctuating emotions such as pride, anger, fear, and bitterness can add to the distress of uncertainty. Various emotions continue during the person’s deployment, based upon changes the family encounters as they adjust to the departure and absence of their family member. The following is a typical cycle of emotions:

·        The cycle begins with a short period of intense emotions, such as fear and anger, when news of deployment is released to the family.

·        As departure grows closer, a period of detachment and withdrawal may occur. In preparation for the physical separation, family members may experience intense emotions.

·        A period of sadness, loneliness, and tension begins at the time of departure; this can last several weeks or longer.

·        Following the first weeks of deployment, families begin to adjust to a new routine without the deployed service member.

·        As the end of the deployment period draws near, tension continues as the family anticipates changes related to the return of the service member.

When Families Have Difficulties

Deployment will be a challenging time for family members who are left behind:

·        In addition to patriotism and pride, feelings of fear and anger are also common. The mixture of these feelings may be confusing, particularly for children.

·        If a family already has difficulty communicating with one another, such problems may worsen during times of stress, and add strain to the family.

·        Those deployed may downplay the potential for danger in order to protect the family from excessive worry, which can make family members feel their feelings of fear are being invalidated.

When there is an impending crisis such as a war deployment, some families may need to be become more aware of their style of relating to and supporting each other.

·        Emotions can run high during the deployment, and people can turn fear, anger, and other emotions against those they care for the most.

·        When certain family members, particularly children, do express their fear or anger, families should not view these feelings as too sensitive or as an annoyance. Instead, realize that those feelings may be emotions that everyone shares, but perhaps not everyone has acknowledged those feelings yet.

·        Alternatively, it is possible that members will feel as though their emotions are numb during the time before a departure. This is because these individuals may be preparing emotionally for the separation from the family; it does not mean these family members don't care. Sometimes the stronger the numbing, the stronger the emotions underlying the feelings.

Fear of the Unknown

Communication with the deployed family member during war may be minimal. When the family knows little about where the service member is being deployed, they may try to obtain any information they can about that area of the world. Often, family members will turn to the media for this information. When families do this, they may be faced with media speculation that emphasizes frightening commentary and images. Online discussion groups can also be a source of unreliable information that creates needless distress. Learn what you can about the issues from trustworthy resources, such as public libraries and published books. Put the risk in proportion so that you are in a better position to think realistically. For example, remind yourself that even though you hear regularly about deaths in the military, the vast majority of deployed troops are not harmed.

Changes in Family Structure

A spouse left at home during deployment will be faced with work tasks that s/he may be unfamiliar with. Juggling finances, lawn care, car and home repair, cooking, and raising children can lead to stress overload and exhaustion. Families that are flexible regarding roles and responsibilities are better able to adapt to deployment stresses. It's important for family members to support each other in these new responsibilities and to get outside help as much as possible. Your military contingency officer and your employee assistance program can provide you with childcare referrals, including before- and after-school programs and in-home care.

Special Concerns When the Primary Caretaker Is Deployed

Many more women are now participating in war-related deployments. During Operation Desert Shield/Storm, more than 40,000 women were deployed, thousands of them mothers with dependent children. Research on work-family conflict among active duty women indicates:

·        The struggle between work and family duties is a source of parenting distress.

·        Women who were supported by their husbands in their marital and parenting roles had fewer work-family conflicts, less distress, or less depression.

·        Families that are flexible regarding roles and responsibilities are better able to adapt to deployment stresses.

·        Getting information about difficult issues, such as separation anxiety, discipline, raising adolescents, and sibling rivalry, may help make care easier.

Special Concerns for Reservists

Reservists have added concerns pertaining to the families and jobs left behind. In some cases, military deployment can create financial hardships due to a loss of income. Sometimes the household financial manager is the one who is deployed and the remaining head of the household is left to manage the finances, perhaps without much practice. The government has developed many services and programs to assist you and your family with these challenges during the predeployment, deployment, and reunification stages. There are groups that can help with the development of family emergency plans, family care plans, and personal financial management.

Suggestions for Families of Those Going to War

The following are suggestions to help you manage the stress of having a family member deployed for war-related duties:

1.      Take time to listen to each other. Know that deployment will be a painful and frightening time, particularly for children. Spend time listening to family members without judging or criticizing what they say. People may need to just express themselves during this time. The more family members can communicate with one another, the less long-term strain there will be on the family.

2.      Limit exposure to news media programs. Families should minimize exposure to anxiety-arousing media related to the war. News programs often emphasize fearful content and frightening images to create a "story." Watching a lot of TV news programs, for example, can create needless distress. When children worry about war, let them know that the war is far away. Acknowledge children's fears, and let them know that parents, teachers, and police are here to protect them.

3.      Remember the deployed member is still a part of the family. Find ways to keep a symbolic representation of the deployed member visible to the family. Keep photographs of your loved one in prominent locations. Get children's help in keeping a family journal of each day's events for the deployed member to look at when he or she returns.

4.      Understand feelings. Emotions such as fear, anger, and feeling "numb" are normal and common reactions to stress. Family members need to make sure these emotions aren't turned against one another in frustration. It will help family members manage tension if you share feelings, recognize that they are normal, and realize that most family members feel the same way.

5.      Spend time with people. Coping with stressful events is easier when in the company of caring friends. Ask for support from your family, friends, church, or other community group.

6.      Join or develop support groups. Forming support groups for the spouses of deployed military personnel helps spouses cope with separation from their loved ones. Peer-support groups, led by spouses of deployed service members, can be a tremendous aid to family functioning. Spouses can share ideas with each other, trade childcare or other responsibilities, and encourage each other if they are feeling taxed.

7.      Keep up routines. Try to stick to everyday routines. Familiar habits can be very comforting.

8.      Take time out for fun. Don't forget to do things that feel good to you. Take a walk, spend time with your pets, or play a game you enjoy.

9.      Help others. It is beneficial for everyone to find ways you and your family can productively channel energy. Helping other families and organizing neighborhood support groups or outings can help everyone involved.

10.  Self-care. The more emotionally nurturing and stable the remaining caretaker is, the less stress the children will feel. However, trying to "do it all" can lead to exhaustion. Signs of caregiver stress include feeling as though you are unable to cope, feeling constantly exhausted, or feeling as though you no longer care about anything. It is especially important for caretakers to devote time to themselves, exercise, and get plenty of rest.

11.  Get professional help if needed. When stress becomes overwhelming, don't be afraid to seek professional help. Ongoing difficulties such as exhaustion, apathy, worry, sleeplessness, bad dreams, irritability, or anger-outbursts warrant the attention of a professional counselor. The military employment assistance program provides free counseling for family members impacted by the stress of deployment. Contingency planning personnel are available on bases around the country to help families handle stress related to deployment.

12.  Use military outreach programs. Military outreach programs are in place to help families prevent social isolation. Interventions for military families are especially important for younger families and those without a prior history of deployments. Group leaders are trained to (1) assist in the grief process that a family goes through when a spouse is deployed, (2) teach coping skills to deal with indefinite separations, and (3) help spouses plan a family reunion.


War brings about difficult stressors for families of deployed service members. Mixed feelings about the deployment are common, and emotions tend to fluctuate over the course of the deployment. It is most important to take added steps during this time to take care of yourself and your family. Also, seek help from others around you who will understand, including friends, family members, or other families who have a member deployed.

Related Fact Sheets

Managing grief

Information about the course of bereavement, the treatment of bereaved individuals, and complications of bereavement

Talking with children about war

How do children understand what war means? How can adults best address the concerns of children?

The effect of PTSD on families

Provides information about the effects of PTSD on family members, and how to cope with the effects

War and families

How traumatic stress reactions can affect families

Web site links

Family Readiness Groups (FRGs)
The Army recognizes that helping families is its moral obligation and in its best interest. Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) are an organization of officers, enlisted soldiers, civilians, and family members who volunteer to provide mutual social and emotional support, outreach services, and information to their fellow soldiers and family members in a local area. For information contact your unit, or if you need help in locating family assistance, contact the Army-wide Family Liaison Office or call toll-free 1-800-833-6622.

Selected References

Black, W. G. (1993). Military-induced family separation: A stress reduction intervention. Social Work, 38, 273–280.

Gimbel, C., & Booth, A. (1994). Why does military combat experience adversely affect marital relations? Journal of Marriage and Family, 56, 691–703.

Pincus, S. H., House, R., Christenson, J., & Adler, L. E. (2001). The emotional cycle of deployment: A military family perspective. U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, 4/5/6, 15–23.

Van Breda, A. D. (1999). Developing resilience to routine separations: An occupational social work intervention. The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 80, 597–605.

Vinokur, A. D., Pierce, P. F., & Buck, C. L. (1999). Work-family conflicts of women in the Air force: Their influence on mental health and functioning. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20, 865–878.

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Salute American Heroes


FOREVER CHANGED -- Military families are urged to face facts:

Soldiers will be different when they return.




Story here...

Story below:


Forever changed

Military families are urged to face facts: Soldiers will be different when they return

By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff

Cathy Carney dreams of her husband's return from Iraq in loving detail. He steps through a door, and she runs toward him, leaping into his arms for a deep kiss and tearful embrace. He doesn't say much, just ``Hi, Cath," but smiles ear to ear, the way he did on their wedding day. All around them, mothers are hugging their sons, and fathers are scooping up daughters, but she sees only him. She clings to him and, for the longest time, doesn't let go.

During Jack Carney's year long deployment in Iraq, she has replayed the scene in her mind over and over again. She turns to it when she misses him the most, even if it sometimes makes her miss him more.

But, at a recent meeting of a family readiness group at an Army Reserve Center in Brockton, a program trainer cautioned against such idyllic images of soldiers' homecomings. After the initial joy of the reunion, reservists and their families often struggle to pick up the threads of their shared lives, he warned. Many soldiers returning from war experience a rocky transition to civilian life, and that strain can permeate entire families.
Couples, in particular, find it hard to regain their footing, and shouldn't be disappointed if the old magic doesn't return overnight.

``Don't expect perfect in the reunion process," said Richard Croucher, the director of family programs for the 94th Regional Readiness Command, which oversees readiness groups across New England. ``To think you're both going to continue just the way you were, it's not going to happen. You're both different people."

Family readiness groups are volunteer support networks for relatives of service members who typically meet monthly to share experiences and advice, both on coping with soldiers' absences and preparing for their return.

The Brockton group is affiliated with the Army Reserve's 220th Transportation Company, a unit based in Keene, N.H., that was deployed to Iraq a year ago. The unit is poised to return home from Iraq soon, possibly within two weeks, and relatives are counting the days until the homecoming.

The hardships military families endure during deployment receive more attention, but the difficulties they encounter when soldiers return are often just as profound, military and civilian counselors say. Taken together, the toll of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are potentially causing ``secondary trauma" for millions of Americans on the home front, said Kenneth Reich , codirector of a group of volunteer therapists called SOFAR that has partnered with the Army Reserve to counsel families of several reserve units, including the 220th.

``The scope is staggering," said Reich, president of the Psychoanalytic Couple and Family Institute of New England, SOFAR's umbrella organization. `
`There's a real ripple effect on the families."

Reich started SOFAR -- it stands for Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists -- last year after extensive negotiations with the military, and is now coordinating with groups of mental health professionals across the country to broaden the effort. SOFAR, whose members usually meet with small groups of reservists' relatives, including children, is scheduled to begin working with the Massachusetts National Guard in October, and is also developing a program to train teachers to help children of men and women in the services.

With so many combat soldiers returning from Iraq with serious psychological problems, millions of their loved ones are dealing with the repercussions. Reich said he is struck by the depth of military families' resilience, but also of their hardships. ``The tail of trauma is a long one," he said.

Croucher and Reich said there is a growing recognition that military families, particularly those of reservists, need counseling before and during soldiers' return to ease the often-jarring reentry to their former lives. A National Military Family Association survey released in March found that military families experience high levels of anxiety, fatigue, and stress, and called for increased assistance to help families adjust after deployments.

Jaine Darwin, a Cambridge psychoanalyst and SOFAR codirector, said that while the public commonly perceives soldiers' returns as ``VE Day in Times Square," the post deployment transition is usually daunting.

Essentially, a new father or mother is coming home to a family that has also changed, she said. ``You can't take someone whose life has been in constant danger, drop them back home, and expect everything to be rosy right away."

Darwin said that families' daily exposure to intense stress -- the nightmares, erratic behavior, and emotional distance -- can be traumatizing, and hopes that counseling families will help prevent soldiers' children from incurring ``intergenerational trauma." SOFAR plans to continue counseling family members for several months after units have returned.

Mel Tapper , the returning combat veteran coordinator for the Boston area, who also works with National Guard readiness groups, said that families who pray each day for their soldier's safe return find it hard to think of anything beyond that point.

``But, after the initial euphoria, you have to deal with the reality," he said.

Matt Cary , president of the Washington-based advocacy group, Veterans and Military Families for Progress, said he is lobbying for expanded services for military families after deployment, noting high divorce rates among military couples.

Nancy Lessin , a Boston resident who cofounded Military Families Speak Out, which opposes the war, said that reunions are invariably bittersweet because soldiers return fundamentally changed.

``No one comes back from this war safe and sound," she said. ``Our loved ones who left do not come back."

In Brockton, a strong kinship pervades the room at the Army Reserve Center as members share smiles, empathetic looks, and nervous laughs. No one mentions the war, except to ask how a loved one is doing, and whether they've been able to get through on the phone. They want nothing more than to have their spouses and children safely beside them again, but they understand that reconnecting will take time.

``When they get back, it's wonderful, but everything's changed," said Lillian Connolly , the wife of an Army staff sergeant, Joseph Connolly Jr., and the readiness group leader. ``They don't know what the kids eat, what their bedtime is. You adjust to them being gone and suddenly it's, `` `Hi, honey, I'm home.' "

SOFAR and the group plan to keep meeting after the unit returns. When the unit returned from its first tour, families felt unprepared to handle the anxiety, paranoia, and restlessness many soldiers experienced. This time, relatives believe they will be able to spot the warning signs and have fewer illusions that their lives will resume without a hitch.

Connolly said members started preparing for the unit's return ``as soon as they left," to minimize the readjustment, and Croucher, who suffered post traumatic stress disorder after serving in Vietnam, counsels patience.

``It takes at least as long as the deployment for you both to get your nervous system back to normal," Croucher told the group. Many soldiers return home wary and withdrawn, hesitant to show affection, he said.

``They're still soldiers," he said. ``They're not husbands and parents yet."

Carney, a 44-year-old Canton resident, said she is relieved the group will continue its meetings, and that she has tried to remain ``cautious about my expectations" despite her excitement that a year that has ``felt like five" is nearly over.

As the meeting wrapped up, Croucher urged the group to call if they see signs of erratic behavior.

``Only time will bring your soldier back to you. Remember that."

Peter Schworm can be reached at .