Welcome, Allison Buckholtz, author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War. She lives in the Washington, DC suburbs with her two young children; her husband is currently serving a 12-month deployment in the Middle East. (Originally published at Alison’s Deployment Diary on Double X.)
“What are you drawing?” I asked my son Ethan, as he swirled paint on paper one quiet afternoon at our house.
“A welcome home sign,” he answered.
Ethan is 6 years old, and though he has a sly sense of humor, he doesn’t yet appreciate irony. So I couldn’t laugh, even though my husband Scott, an active-duty Navy pilot, left for a year-long assignment in Iraq just two days ago. With training and travel, Scott will be away close to 14 months, so Ethan’s welcome home sign comes about 410 days too early. I didn’t tell him that, of course. If he can find solace through art, or anything constructive, I’m thrilled. It’s better than crying for four hours straight, as he did the night Scott left.
There are, of course, many well-developed, crafty strategies for military kids to count down to a parent’s homecoming from deployment. In my circle of moms, the paper chain is popular: Basically, you and your kid cut out one colorful strip for every day of the servicemember’s absence, tape each into a link, then connect all the links together and string them across the room. You remove one link every morning to mark the approaching homecoming hug.
My husband got home barely a year ago, and his last stint lasted seven months. Before that deployment, the idea of a 216-link paper chain horrified me; the last thing I wanted to do was enumerate the endless number of days. I felt strongly that my kids’ emotional health rested on precisely the fact that they didn’t know exactly how long they’d be apart from Daddy.
I did briefly consider the jar of chocolate kisses, a new tactic for getting through deployment that’s making the rounds among military wives. You buy several bags of Hershey’s kisses, count out one for each day of the deployment, and place them in a jar. Every morning when you and the children wake up, start your day with a kiss, as if your deployed loved one was there to greet you.
But even that one seemed suspect to me. Ours is the kind of house in which Halloween candy doesn’t last ‘til breakfast the next day. I didn’t doubt my capacity to devour 400 kisses on a lonely night, so I did myself a favor and discarded this feels-a-little-too-good strategy before I ended up like a Cathy cartoon.
Since I’m a writer, I thought that perhaps Ethan might discover an outlet for his feelings by putting them on paper. I tried this during my husband’s last deployment, when Ethan, then 4 and a half, was in the throes of classic dad’s-on-deployment symptoms: depressed, angry and withdrawn, a mockery of his best self. As I wrote in my memoir, Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War, I asked him to draw his feelings, and he tore the pencil through the paper, ripping it to shreds. One morning, I told him that I would write a letter to Daddy from him if he told me what to say. Here’s what he dictated:
I wish you were home right now. I really miss you. I’m crying right this second and I’m holding my shirt over my face. I wish you were home right now. I really really love you. Please tell the driver of the aircraft carrier to stop the boat.
My dream was about you leaving home. You were in bed and other people rang the doorbell and took you away and me and Esther [my daughter] were pulling you back and you had to drive away and we followed you but couldn’t find you and I cried and cried and cried.
That is all done.
Multiple military studies detail the experiences of military children with deployed parents, and the way that parents’ stress levels affect their children. Although one Army-sponsored study concludes that “military children and adolescents exhibit levels of psychopathology on par with children of civilian families,” it acknowledges that military children face “significant life challenges” not shared by their civilian peers. Boys with a war-deployed father may suffer especially frequent “emotional, behavioral, sex-role, and health problems,” according to one particularly influential Army study.
I wasn’t a military kid, and both of my parents were deeply involved and ever-present in nearly every aspect of my childhood, so it’s daunting for me to put myself in my son’s place. I know he misses his father, and I know he’s in pain, but at his age, he doesn’t articulate the details. Instead, I just have to watch him closely for the changes in his behavior. Like amateur sleuths, we military moms constantly scan our kids for clues to their state of mind. Is he acting up? Throwing food? Saying odd things? If we suspect deployment is the source, we start calling therapists, or carving out more one-on-one time, or searching for appropriate books to read. These strategies work for some people, but I haven’t yet found the foolproof one.
This welcome home business is coming entirely too early. So how do I break it to my kid, fresh blue paint splattered on his cheek, that our countdown hasn’t even reached the one-year mark yet?
Turns out I didn’t have to worry.
Ethan was quiet for a moment as he surveyed his swirls, which had morphed into something considerably more abstract than a homecoming banner. I wondered, as I so often do, what he was thinking.
“I changed my mind,” my boy finally said. “It’s not a welcome home sign. It’s a peace sign.”
Photograph of Ethan courtesy of the author.