When we lived overseas, my husband and I loved watching AFN commercials. They served as mini public service announcements for everything from looking both ways before crossing the street to recognizing signs of emotional and verbal abuse. Sometimes serious, sometimes silly, their well-intentioned and often low-budget productions became a staple of our time there. Years later, we still laugh about our favorites, like the one depicting abandoned shopping carts around post set against Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel” and this fun little ditty that always had me dancing around the house.
But there’s another commercial that has also stuck with me. It featured a woman crying at the kitchen table while her husband slams down a stack of papers in exasperation. Then it cuts to each one separately venting their frustrations to the camera: She feels that he has been distant and mean since returning home from deployment while he expresses annoyance that she didn’t keep records of household expenses while he was away.
At the time, the whole thing seemed very overdramatic, very extreme. I couldn’t understand how welcoming home a spouse from deployment could possibly be so difficult. After all, my husband and I had yet to endure deployment ourselves. It was an experience neither of us could prepare for outside of our own preconceived notions — assumptions, it turns out, that were more heavily influenced by popular culture than reality.
We’ve all seen the homecomings. In recent years, they have graduated from viral home videos to Super Bowl ads. Their popularity persists for the public at large, not just our relatively small military subset; and it’s easy to see why. They appeal to our patriotic natures and are deeply emotional in an intensely gratifying way.
If the success of Disney films have taught us anything, it’s that happily-ever-afters sell. We prefer to imagine our troops coming home to loving embraces and joyful tears. That’s all well and good but, in doing so, we forget that behind every pair of combat boots is a real person with real loved ones and that life goes on after the banners and ticker tape fade away.
The truth is, it can be hard… really hard.
Establishing a routine with a newly returned spouse is often just as difficult, if not more so, than the immediate aftermath of actual deployment. Each person has adapted to life apart only to be thrust into more transition. And while cultural norms allow for despondency – and even anger – when a soldier leaves, the expectation is entirely reversed for his or her return.
But change is always hard. It’s hard to adjust to another person’s needs after such a long absence. It’s hard to compromise on seemingly insignificant decisions like where to eat and what movie to watch after months of consulting no one but yourself. That’s to say nothing of the more significant hurdles like holidays, PCS’s, and parenting decisions, that can strain even the most solid of relationships.
If you’re lucky enough to have supportive friends or family close by, you may get offers for free babysitting or home cooked meals. Take them up on it. It’s so important to spend quality time together to readjust and reestablish intimacy, things which can suffer under the stress of children and chores. Enjoy a date night or two – hell, get out of town altogether if your finances and circumstances allow it.
All these things are wonderful and the people who go out of their way to help ease the transition can’t be disregarded. Perhaps you have even been that support for someone in their time of need. Go you! You rock!
I want to let you in on a little secret though…
…the most important thing you can do for the spouse of a newly returned soldier is far easier than cooking, cleaning, or babysitting. Really.
Are you ready?
Ask her how things are going. Really ask her.
Chances are, she’ll give you a run-of-the-mill answer that isn’t entirely honest — even if she’s your best friend. She’s not intentionally shutting you out. In fact, she may not have processed her emotions enough to even know where to begin. But if you are careful to ask in a quiet moment when she has your undivided attention, she’ll know you are genuinely interested and not simply looking for the expected proclamations of boundless joy. She’ll know you see her.
Be sure to ask again a few days or weeks later. And then again.
It’s not about being nosy or obnoxious; it’s about showing real concern. Don’t hesitate to be direct and ask specifically what it’s been like having her partner home. If you can relate with a similar experience, share the ways in which the transition was difficult for you. Simply hearing another person acknowledge the challenges of post-deployment life can make all the difference for a military spouse. It relieves an uncomfortable pressure and allows for a measure of perspective.
Military life demands an almost supernatural toughness. It sees us through career changes, frequent relocations, and a multitude of other unforeseen difficulties. But sometimes we’re so busy maintaining that tough exterior that we forget to stop fighting and just be human again. After all, it isn’t acknowledging the difficulties of this life that make us weak, it’s insisting they don’t exist at all.
So the next time you’re in the position to help a friend post-deployment, remember that the high-flying euphoria of a military homecoming doesn’t last forever and she’ll need a friend to help heal the bumps and bruises in the fall.
**C also writes for POMP USA, a start up company promoting businesses owned by service members, veterans, and their spouses.