On the day her husband left for Iraq on his third tour in six years, Jennifer James slipped into the shower to cry, thinking no one would hear her.
She was wrong. “Mom, it’s OK. We’ve been through this before,” her then 8-year-old son Bradley said through the door.
Frequent and extended troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are stressing not only those on the battlefield but also their families at home. The military is paying close attention — as are counselors, researchers and family advocates — particularly as troops return to the war zones for a third, fourth and fifth time.
“They’re exhausted, they’re frustrated at the lack of predictability in their lives, especially with the extensions. Every deployment gets harder and harder,” said Joyce Raezer, head of the National Military Families Association in Alexandria, Va.
Spouses know when they marry a soldier, Marine, sailor or airman that there’s a good chance their husband or wife will be deployed.
Still, it’s tough on families even under the best of circumstances. Most families get by without major problems, but many are seeking help from chaplains, psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors.
The stay-behind parent must raise children single-handedly, sometimes while working a full-time job. Spouses and children worry about their loved ones getting killed or injured.
Such stress factors are now compounded by how often they’re sent to war zones. Troops are getting little time at home — a year if they’re lucky — between trips, denying families opportunities to reset their lives.
“What’s happening now is families don’t dare to think about getting back to normal because they know they can’t get back to normal,” said retired Army Col. David Fenell, a counselor education professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Get to know each other, again
Each time a service member returns, couples must get to know each other again, negotiating the ways each may have changed during their separation. Unresolved disputes they may have had over finances, or the raising of their children, may resurface. Children must reacquaint themselves with a parent.
James, 32, who works part time, copes by being active in the community. She serves on the boards of two spouse clubs and is an instructor for an Army community program, helping newcomers adjust to military life. She says she’s motivated by the support of those around her and knowing that fellow spouses could use some cheering up.
“There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed. I think we’ve all been there,” she said. However, she adds, “I feel like I always have the option of getting up and making a difference.”
Earlier this year, James’ son, Bradley, wrote a short essay titled “How to Get Through a Deployment.” Bradley, who turned nine in June — the third birthday he’s celebrated without his father — suggests that kids talk about their parent’s deployment with friends and family, or read books and play with friends to take their mind off it for a while.
“We’re both going through the same thing,” his mother said.
Her husband was originally due to return from Iraq with the 25th Infantry Division sometime this summer, a year after he left Hawaii. But in April, his deployment was extended by three months, and he won’t be back until the fall.
Wives 'on edge'
Nichcole DeKok, whose husband is also in Iraq, said all the 60-plus women in the family group she leads have sought counseling at least once — including herself.
“My wives are so on edge — they’re young wives, they’re young moms. They don’t know what to do,” said DeKok, 31.
Alcohol abuse tends to rise among family members during deployments, said Shelley M. MacDermid, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University. So do gambling, smoking, and drug addictions, she said.
Pregnant women with deployed husbands have 2.8 times as much risk of developing postpartum depression as other pregnant women, say researchers at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month said mothers were three times more likely to mistreat their children when their soldier husbands were deployed than when the fathers were home.
The Army recently added $8 million to its respite child care program, and it plans to hire more than 1,000 additional support staff for families.
“Families are sort of the backbone of our soldiers. That’s what holds you together,” said Maj. Gen. Carla Hawley-Bowland, head of the Pacific Regional Medical Command.
Bradley James spoke softly when asked what advice he had for other military children waiting for a parent to come home.
“You just need to stay calm, and be positive that God will always take care of our family members and everybody else in the Army,” the fourth-grader said.