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

Soldiers will be different when they return.




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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 .



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