By Lynn Thorne
Shawn Dempsey called his wife from the hospital a half a world away to tell her he’d been shot. Dempsey, a Gunny Sergeant in the Marines, was in Fallujah, Iraq, when he was targeted by a sniper. It’s the call every military spouse dreads.
“When he told me what happened, it hurt. I was sick to my stomach,” remembers Leslie Dempsey. Leslie and her sons, 13-year-old Joe and 16-year-old John, were well aware of the danger when Shawn headed out for his third deployment in July 2006.
“The risk was real from day one. Every deployment is real. It’s a gut check,” Leslie says.
Dempsey returned home to Lincoln Military Housing in Annapolis in March, 2007, and is healing fine. But according to Dr. Bruce Turnquist, his family’s concern — the fear of injury and death — is just one of many sources of stress among military families. There are others that may seem more trivial but are just as potent.
“When they’re waiting for a loved one, the biggest issue is loneliness, and the running of life,” says Turnquist, a former Army psychologist who teaches the course “Reunited: Family Life After Deployment,” at Anne Arundel Community College. He says even simple things like taking care of the home and paying the bills are stressful for the military spouse who’s suddenly single.
Couples with children face even more complexities. The spouse is now essentially a single parent dealing with the day-to-day issues of child rearing. “They’re used to being half of a whole,” says Carol Fritz, the Work and Family Life Consultant at Annapolis Fleet and Family Support Center. “Now they’re coping with so much more all on their own.”
Deployment weighs heavy on the children. Thirteen-year-old Tazsie Ball of Annapolis remembers when his dad, Petty Officer First Class Daniel Ball, shipped out aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz bound for Iraq in February 2003. “When he left, he told me that I had to be the man of the house. It was really hard because the man of the house isn’t supposed to cry,” says Ball, then 11. “But I’d cry at night because I’d think about what could happen to him. And I wanted to cry when I’d look at my little brother and sister, who were asking when Dad would come home.”
Some youth act out while their parent is deployed, testing the waters to see how much they can get away with. Others exhibit behavioral issues when the soldier returns. Lora Rodriguez’s three-year-old son, Luis, is still dealing with issues from her 10-month deployment in January 2005.
“He was standoffish with me when I came home. He barely talked to me the whole time I was deployed. He was so mad. I think he’s still mad,” says the Annapolis resident.
The situation is compounded by the fact that Rodriguez’s husband is now deployed to the same U.S. military hospital in Kuwait where she worked. The 38-year-old Rodriguez says little Luis is less anxious this time because, “he knows where his dad’s going. I came home. It’s easier for him to understand because ‘Mommy’s okay and she came home from the same place.’”
It’s common for children to be insecure following deployment. When Anita Crafts’ husband returned home to Annapolis in March 2007 after seven months in Afganistan, their three-year-old daughter, Samantha, had a hard time whenever her father was out of sight. “When he’d leave to go to work, she’d say, ‘Where’d Daddy go? When’s he coming back?’”
Even something as joyous as the homecoming can be stressful. Dr. Turnquist says it’s imperative that everyone talk beforehand. “It’s absolutely fine for the family to plan a big homecoming event but they need to understand that the service member may not be ready for that, especially if they’ve been very traumatized. They may want their first night home to be quiet with their spouse and children,” says Turnquist.
Kerry Gehring is still waiting for that homecoming. Her husband, Jim, is full-time active duty with the Maryland Army National Guard. He’s in Iraq, scheduled to come home in June 2008. In Turnquist’s class she learned that she needs to give Jim some space.
“Dr. Turnquist said try not to jump right in to one-on-one time. Don’t force things to happen.” Gehring’s husband has two weeks of leave coming up and she’ll take Turnquist’s advice when she meets him to spend it in Australia. “We’ll plan some other activities for the first five days, rent a car and tour the area for awhile. Maybe the second week we’ll be ready to have some quiet time together.”
Experts also advise giving a soldier some time and space to talk about their experiences. Leslie Dempsey says her husband vents to his compatriots but that it’s taken awhile for him to open up to her. “Don’t pressure them to tell you anything, especially if they’ve been through something pretty bad,” Dempsey says. “When they’re ready to talk, they’ll talk.”
That advice goes for adjusting to family life in general after deployment. Whether it’s parenting issues or balancing the books, Turnquist advises, “ease back into regular life. Just observe. Take time with the kids and with the spouse. There’s plenty of time to work out the details.”
Lynn Thorne is a freelance writer, wife and mother of two who lives in La Plata, MD.