Sheila Casey on Finding Balance in the Military

Military spousePlease welcome guest blogger, veteran military spouse and BSF Advisory Board member, Sheila Casey.

I have been a military spouse for 39 years. During that time I have experienced all the same things each one of you have…raising a family, moving, deployments, reintegration, children changing schools, volunteering and making lifelong friendships. It has not always been easy but I would not change a moment of it. I say that now although there were days when I thought differently. When military life became difficult it was easy to think “enough” but then I would figure my way through it and get on with life.

What I realized is that I needed something that was mine. I could not live my life through my husband and I needed something in addition to the Army. I knew that one day my husband would retire and that the military part of my life would end. I needed something that would continue. The big question was what. Continue reading

Spouse Speak: Recently Deployed

This post originally appeared in the August 19, 2009 edition of The Flagship.

By Vivian Greentree

My husband recently deployed (I say recently because my donut of misery still has too much green on it to say anything else … still it feels like forever!) and I have been doing all the typical stuff for trying to keep my kids connected with their dad through our normal routines.

For instance, we are on a care package schedule now, wherein my oldest, MJ, practices his writing skills in telling dad what he’s done and the youngest, Walker, displays his ability to draw circles and color them in. There is always a golf magazine that my oldest saves from the mail with a reverence that is almost comical – “I get to be the one who puts it in the box,” he says. And, I think the only sacred box of cookies in the house, the only box that isn’t in danger of being raided by grubby little hands on the sly, is the one that has been earmarked for dad. Always Chips-Ahoy (not enough chocolate to melt but enough to make a good cookie). Oh, and his special hair gel. My military man knows how to look good even in the desert thank you very much!

So, thinking about what to put in our care packages has become a running point of interest with me and the boys – “NO! Daddy does not want you to send him that frog. NO! Not even if you put it in water on the way over!” We also read We Serve Too! (www.weservetoo.com) before bedtime a lot. I found that particular book when an organization I’m a part of, Blue Star Families, held a Books on Bases, Smiles on Faces program here in Virginia Beach for our local military families. The National Guard representative who came had a slew of books aimed at helping military children cope with the challenges of having a deployed parent. I have found it to be invaluable in starting conversations with MJ, who’s 5, about his feelings of missing his dad. And, it shows him that he and his brother are serving in their own way – as children in a military family – which allows him to replace some of that anger he has towards missing his dad with the pride of being a military child who is working hard in his own special way.

And now, I have just added another tactic for getting through this deployment (while retaining my sanity!) which has proven to be quite the hit in our house. A few weeks ago, I was introduced to an idea by a military spouse friend in Florida who told me she has a friend who has been carrying her deployed boyfriend’s picture around on a stick. I know, sounds odd. Like a warped version of a blow up doll date. However, she has been taking pictures of herself with her “flat Stanley” at all the fun places she goes and then puts them up on her blog for her friends and family, and most importantly, Stanley, to see. Flat Stanley has been to baseball games, a friend’s baby shower (probably glad he actually wasn’t there in person for that particular one!), out to dinner, and to the pool. I decided to try it out for myself. So, MJ and I picked a picture of my husband and enlarged it. Given my lack of craftiness (though surely I must be given points for ingenuity) we used what would otherwise be known as a barbecue skewer to tape his picture to. Oh yeah, and given our tendencies towards water play, we laminated it.

MJ calls it ‘dad on a stick.’ And, since his creation, DOAS has been biking with us, on a picnic, and to the pool. He’s peered over MJ’s shoulder while MJ was working on his letters, gone to Habachi with us, and he’s even tagged along to “George Washington DC” on our trip to the Smithsonian (he was the only one in the car who didn’t complain during the six hour trip home, when we got stuck in traffic).

// = 1221627600) && (nAdsysTime

The pictures we take I send to Mike. It gives him a pictorial of what we are doing and allows him a window into our world. He says it is bittersweet – obviously it makes him wish it was he who was actually here helping MJ with his school work or even here being trapped in the car with us during horrible traffic instead of a paper version of himself. Still, he says he enjoys the whole process and seeing what we are doing, even telling me new places he wants DOAS to go (to a Pearl Jam concert is one that has been mentioned). And, MJ and Walker are all about finding outrageous new scenarios for DOAS to be involved with, especially as they try to show dad what they want to do with him when he gets home. Last week, when I had class, MJ asked our babysitter if DOAS could help make Mac and Cheese with them. Accordingly, in this most recent care package, there is a picture of MJ holding DOAS while he helps stir the macaroni with the carefully printed message of, “We’ll eat Mac and Cheese when you get home! You can use my Spiderman bowl!”

So, if you have a deployed spouse and are looking for a fun summer project to do with your kids, why not make a DOAS (or a MOAS)? While he doesn’t compare with his living, breathing counterpart, at least he’ll be able to invoke some of the comical, yet poignant moments that help get us through these long separations. Plus, unlike his real-life counterpart, my DOAS agrees with everything I say!

Vivian Greentree lives in Chesapeake, VA and is the Membership Director of Blue Star Families. She is also on the Governor’s Commission for Nation and Community Service. If you’d like to get involved with BSF, contact Vivian at vgreentree@bluestarfam.org.

A Peace Sign

IMG_6831Welcome, 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.

“For who?”

“For Daddy.”

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:

Dear Daddy,

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.

love,

Ethan

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.

How to Prepare for Deployment

DeploymentThis article originally appeared at MilSpouse.com.

14 Pointers to ease the tension.

by Vivian Greentree

While there is no real way to emotionally prepare yourself or your family for the long separations of deployments, we can certainly do a lot in the way of logistical and organizational planning to help facilitate the situation.

For me, no matter how much I prepare and arrange, the fact that I’m sleeping alone for the next 6 to 12 months isn’t real until the first night after he’s left.

Here are a few pointers I’ve managed to accumulate through personal trials and tribulations.

The Legal Stuff

  1. Make sure all your legal documents are in order.
  2. Make sure you have access to any joint or single accounts that you’ll need to pay bills.
  3. Make a spreadsheet with accounts, passwords and the bills you are responsible for and when they are due.
  4. Create a document with the contact phone numbers, email addresses and Web sites for base representatives, your spouse club, FRG, or other people who have information that you’ll inevitably want to have sometime during the deployment.

The House/General Maintenance Stuff

  1. Fix Things. Don’t wait until things break to discover they need work. Gutters, roofs, tires, etc.
  2. Know your limits.
  3. Have a running list of services you use and the corresponding contact information. Try to build yourself a good list before you actually need them.

The Family Stuff

  1. First, resign yourself to the fact that nothing you do to prepare is going to lessen the loss of not having your soul mate, the father/mother of your kids, and best friend.
  2. Find ways to mark time.
  3. One friend gets a map of the world and uses push pins to show where his wife has traveled with her ship.
  4. Digital picture frames are awesome. You can continually upload new pictures or mail a removable mass storage device, like a flash drive with new pictures on it.
  5. Stay connected.  This can be done both ways, for the deployed spouse or the family waiting at home.
  6. Another idea is to buy/download computer cameras and software (like Skype) that allow you to converse through an internet connection. This, of course, is dependent upon the type of deployment and your spouse’s access to computers.

War, yellow ribbons and Gatorade

yellow ribbonJust a quick intro about me. I syndicate a column about military living called Out of the Blue and have been trying to live this lifestyle with my five daughters and my Special Ops-always-gone-hubby. I’m involved with Blue Star Families and hope to help this community in many ways. I’m originally from Italy and can cook some mean Italian dishes. I look forward to sharing this journey with you and to learning from one another. The post below appeared last week in my column and is titled, War Yellow Ribbons and Gatorade

My 6 year old daughter Anna rolled on the ground screaming and clutching her stomach as my other children pulled on my arm, covered their eyes and cried. She screamed that the pain in her tummy was too much to take. I tried to touch her, she rolled away, threw up and passed out.

I called 911 and while on the phone Anna came back a little bit, but the dispatcher told me not to take her by car but wait for the ambulance.

My next thought was whether I should take my other four kids in the ambulance, and could they even ride in it?

Quick note: my neighbors aren’t quite on the deployed wife bandwagon. Whenever my husband deploys, they just tell me I need to mow my lawn more often. I tried a few other friends, but no one was around on the weekend. Finally, I sucked it up and called our $15 per hour baby-sitter, who fortunately was able to come.

When the ambulance came, they put Anna on a stretcher, and one of the EMT’s told me to ride in the front, while the other stayed with Anna in back.

As I was leaving I reassured my kids with a confident smile, and told them that most of the time people who are taken to the hospital by ambulance are just fine (really?), and that I’d call them as soon as we got there. My oldest daughter’s eyes were filled with tears and I hugged her, and whispered that Anna would be fine.
I stared at my kids watching the big ambulance go, feeling so small. I clutched my purse with my hands and turned to look at the driver thinking that maybe I should make small talk. He was looking straight ahead and when I asked him which hospital we were going to, he answered in a curt voice, signaling he didn’t want to chat.
I rummaged in my purse, unrealistically looking for strength, but found none. I was scared, and I was angry. I saw cars in my neighborhood with bumper stickers that said ‘we support our troops’ and was upset that I didn’t feel this support in the least bit. I truly wanted to talk to my deployed husband.

My thoughts cleared only when the doctor looked at Anna and said she was fine. Her blood pressure had dropped quickly and he hypothesized that her stomach may have twisted – that’s what he said – and gotten back to place on its own.
The doctor was kind, and the nurses compassionate. I wanted to get a drink of water but didn’t want to leave Anna who was scared of the needles that hid behind every corner of the hospital, so one of the nurses gave m e Gatorade out of the staff’s fridge. She squeezed my hand and told me how grateful she was for all that my husband was doing and that a Gatorade was a small gesture compared to our sacrifices.

And that made all the difference in the world to me. Whatever anger was left dissipated and my eyes welled with tears. That Grape flavored Gatorade (not even one of my favorites) meant more to me than any yellow ribbon magnet. I don’t expect my neighbors and friends to take care of me just because my husband’s gone, they’ve got lives and problems of their own. But little gestures of kindness can go beyond big slogans, and make a real difference.

And sometimes, that’s all the help I need.