America’s Forgotten Military Families: Nine years of non-stop deployments, exhaustion, anticipatory grief — with no end in sight

Part I

Op-tempo from hell

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2010/All rights reserved)

On a girls’ night out near Fort Bragg, N.C., Rebekah Sanderlin and her friends went around their circle and talked about which antidepressant each of them was taking. These military wives shared exhaustion, isolation and anxiety. They were mothers struggling to raise small children largely on their own because their husbands were deployed over and over again. They believed no end was in sight.

“My husband’s been gone about 60 of the last 80 months,” says Sanderlin, a journalist, Army wife and mother of two. “After so many years of war, I think people feel like, ‘OK, you have this down.’ Instead, we are worn down.”

Military families across the country echo this fatigue and frustration in national surveys as nine years of repeated combat deployments exact a significant personal toll. They believe few Americans understand or appreciate their sacrifices. They are determined to remain resilient, yet worry they cannot maintain the current pace of deployments – op-tempo, in military lingo. Additional military family programs, congressional proclamations, lapel pins and yellow-ribbon magnets won’t touch the problem, they say. Deployments have to be shorter, less frequent or both. The troops have to spend more time at home.

“The strain on military families is immense,” says Christina Piper, a veteran, soldier’s wife, mother and co-founder of the blog “Her War, Her Voice.” “The constant deployments, the constant separation, the constant worry of injury and death are taking a toll,” says Piper, whose family is stationed in California. “We’ve been in nine years of anticipatory grief. You don’t fault spouses of cancer patients for needing help, and military families are in the same situation.”

As the faltering economy diverts attention from the two-front war now being fought by our nation’s all-volunteer force, military families are in crisis, Sanderlin says. “Everybody’s hitting the wall. As a nation, I think we’re going to see that families’ needs cannot go unaddressed any longer.” Otherwise, “I think you are going to see an increase in child abuse – when young spouses with no coping skills are left behind for the third time – an increase in divorce, an increase in suicides.”

The Hidden Cost of War

Military families already are in trouble. Wives of deployed soldiers have far higher rates of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and other problems than other military spouses, says research epidemiologist Alyssa Mansfield, whose groundbreaking study of more than 250,000 Army wives was published in the New England Journal of Medicine last January.

“This is very different for families than earlier wars,” says Mansfield, who works for the Behavioral Health Epidemiology Program at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “Soldiers are deployed multiple times for lengthy periods. This is insurgent warfare, so anybody (not just combat troops) traveling the roads in Iraq or Afghanistan is in danger.”

E-mail, Skype and cell-phone communication between soldiers and families can suddenly cease for several days any time someone in a unit is killed. Spouses at home are left to wait in silence, wondering who is now widowed.

“It’s so stressful and intense and dark when they miss one of our communications,” Piper says. “(Even when there isn’t a communications blackout), we have a lot more information about how our husbands might get injured or killed.”

Help isn’t always easy to come by. The military’s mental-health system is strained caring for returning soldiers. “Spouses are often told to see a professional off base, and they may just say, ‘Forget it,’” says Mansfield, who analyzed the medical records of families of soldiers who were deployed at any time between 2003 and 2006. She cautions that her findings understate the magnitude of the problem, because she only studied Army wives and the health-care system doesn’t openly identify everyone who is struggling. Also, there’s relatively little medical information available about the well-being of National Guard and reserve families, who may lack the support of a close-knit military community and live too far from bases to use their family programs.

“We have no idea of the real mental-health cost,” Mansfield says. “I’m sure there are tens of thousands of other families who are struggling. The problem is bigger than what a prescription would fix.”

The Army says it’s addressed the problem in part by increasing child-care services available on base. “Household responsibilities, along with complete responsibility for the physical and emotional needs of their children, can challenge the coping skills of the most resilient spouse,” says Rene J. Robichaux, social-work programs manager for the U.S. Army Medical Command.

Family members can access, either in person or via the Internet, a variety of support services through Army Community Services at each military installation, she adds. And the Army plans to increase the span of time between deployments, a move overwhelmed spouses have long urged. Yet, Army officials haven’t given a date for the change or an estimate of how much time soldiers will have at home between deployments.

Married to the Military

Just about everything is stacked against young military couples. Their first post is likely their first experience living away from home, Sanderlin says. If a soldier marries his high-school sweetheart, he probably went back home to get her after basic training and dropped her off at his military base.

“She’s probably pregnant and they are living on a private’s salary,” Sanderlin adds. “You talk to anybody who’s been a team leader or a platoon leader and they will tell you about a young guy who leaves his wife with no food, no money and goes off to training – not because he’s mean, but because he’s 19.”

When Sanderlin married in March 2003, she had a college degree, had worked as a journalist for several years, and had lived on her own in a few different cities. She was 28 when she had her first child. Even with those advantages, “it’s been very difficult,” Sanderlin says.

She moved to Fayetteville, N.C., two days after her wedding. Her husband deployed two weeks later. She left her job and her professional identity just before her son was born, and was ambushed by postpartum depression. “I was overwhelmed.

I was miserable. I couldn’t figure out why – I had this happy, healthy baby.”

Once her husband returned and the couple settled into a routine, he told her she wasn’t herself. She sought help. “Leaving work was a big transition, having him deployed was a big transition, having a baby was a big transition,” she says. “And it all hit at once.”

Eighteen months after she left her reporting job at The Fayetteville Observer, the newspaper invited Sanderlin to write a blog. That blog, Operation Marriage, helped her shake the depression and sustain herself during deployments. “There have been times with the other deployments that the blog was my main source of adult interaction,” Sanderlin says. “My heart goes out to other spouses who don’t have that.”

More often, depression goes unnoticed. “Your closest connection is thousands of miles away in a war zone,” she says.

The demands of young children further isolate the spouses. And if a young couple moves every two years, as is common, it’s difficult to get to know anyone in the local community. Even when military spouses have close friends, they are reluctant to complain. Quite often, the other friend is also a military spouse who is also enduring a deployment.

Meanwhile, they are overwhelmed with worry. “The fear is really, really bad,” Sanderlin says. “Speaking for myself and my friends, we get a sense of dread when an unfamiliar car drives down the street because you think someone is coming to tell you bad news.”

There is a barrage of other stresses. In their first few years of marriage, Sanderlin’s husband was deployed right before and after the deaths of her grandmother, aunt and grandfather. Then, in a two-week stretch in 2008, Sanderlin found out that she was pregnant, her husband was being deployed again, her father had six months to live, and she had a potentially cancerous spot in her mouth that could not be biopsied because of her pregnancy. Although the spot turned out to be benign, “I lived with that worry for a year,” she says.

Readjustment Blues

Military spouses have a three-word shorthand for the unending deployment cycle: wait, honeymoon, suck. Wait for their soldier to come home, enjoy a brief honeymoon, and then things “suck” as a couple tries to re-connect and re-establish a two-parent household.

“If he’s gone a year, it takes a year for us to adjust to him,” Sanderlin says. “There are lots of parenting things they miss. They miss big chunks of development time. They don’t know the rules that apply. It’s like having a houseguest who doesn’t know where anything is kept but is really pushy and insists on doing things.”

After nine years, this deployment cycle is excruciating. “There’s a lot of discussion among military spouses about what’s worse: deployment or re-integration,” Sanderlin says. “All of us would rather have our husbands home than not. The challenge is getting life back to normal. You never really hit your stride.”

And parenting is awkward, Piper adds. “He doesn’t know when to step in with the kids. You don’t know when to let him. By the time you get organized and back into being married, he’s gone again.”

Dread about the next deployment begins immediately. “You wonder, ‘Will he come home next time?’” Piper says. There are constant reminders of that next time. Piper says her family received the telephone call notifying her husband of his third deployment as they were returning from vacation soon after his second deployment. “We get to prepare for goodbye, before we’ve ever said hello.”

Although the Army has increased the time between deployments to a year, that doesn’t mean families get another 12 months to regain their footing. Soldiers spend substantial time attending schools and training for the next tour, and some draw temporary duty assignments away from their home bases. This means Piper has seen her husband about half the year he’s been back from Afghanistan.

“My husband gets four days off every 28 days,” Piper says. “So even when our soldiers are here, they are not here.”

The Army has tried to ease deployment demands since the surge in Iraq ended in August 2008, but it’s a significant challenge. “Stretched by commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Army spokesman Wayne V. Hall says, “Army leaders continue to struggle to give soldiers more time at home with their families (and) away from the war zone.”

“You Signed Up For This”

The civilian-military divide is exacerbated by mythology and misinformation, Sanderlin says. “I would love to debunk the ‘you-signed-up-for-this’ mentality. It seems like there is an element of the population who doesn’t see it as a sacrifice so much as a bad career choice. That hurts.

“I don’t think the general public understands what life is like day to day for members of the military and their families. There are families who are on their sixth or seventh deployment. And when our husbands are gone, we feel like we are deployed with them.”

Amid the recession, military families also hear grumbling from civilians who envy their jobs and health-care plans, and who mistakenly believe that soldiers earn handsome wages and overtime pay. “All of that misinformation causes a lack of sympathy, and that lack of sympathy is hard,” Sanderlin says. “Army wives aren’t killing themselves because life is good.”

Gestures of moral support often do little to ease the burden. When a magnet appears on the back of a car declaring “I support the troops,” Piper says, “The first question I want to ask is how? And where did that five bucks (for the magnet) go? Where was that magnet made?”

She says it meant far more to her to walk out her front door near Fort Campbell, Ky., during one of her husband’s deployments and find that someone mowed her lawn, and for someone to tell her daughter, “Hey, you are a great kid. I hope your dad comes home soon.”

Program Overload

Families credit the military for expanding child-care services and for creating a corps of counselors who see families in the privacy of their homes. Called Military Family Life Consultants, the counselors don’t take notes and don’t report up the chain of command. Thirty-five were sent to Fort Hood for three months in the aftermath of last November’s shootings.

Yet, more programs will not alleviate the stress military families feel. “These are some wonderful programs,” says Mansfield, the epidemiologist who studied Army wives. “But there are still significant problems in these families. Something else needs to be done.”

Military spouses agree.

“Believe me, the military is doing as much as it can,” Piper says. “But we don’t have time for the programs. With the op-tempo and the stress the families are under, there’s hardly time to go to the bathroom, much less find a baby sitter so we can go to counseling.”

Military-family support services simply will not catch up until the wars have been over for a while, Sanderlin predicts. “There’s not enough people, energy and money to address all of the needs.

I don’t know one military spouse who would want to have one dollar diverted from soldiers, from training, from treating PTSD.”

The most effective solution – dialing back the op-tempo – will not only help families but will strengthen the fighting force, they say. “If the family is having problems, the soldier is going to know about it,” Piper says. “I don’t want the soldier fighting next to my husband distracted by his family.”

Sanderlin says trimming long Army deployments is a good starting point.

“I personally think if we’re going to make it sustainable for the next 10 years, we’re going to have to have shorter deployments,” Sanderlin says. Other branches of the military already use shorter deployments. The Marine Corps primarily has seven-month tours. The Air Force deploys its people for four to six months.

Sanderlin sees two other options: expand the fighting force so more soldiers share the load, and reduce the number of deployments any one individual faces. Or take a page from oil companies, which built living compounds in the Middle East to allow U.S. families to live near spouses working in oil fields.

“I could move to India or Pakistan, and he could come home every two weeks or every month,” Sanderlin says.

Until there are significant changes, families like Piper’s, Sanderlin’s and tens of thousands of others have no choice but to endure.

“Every time he leaves,” Sanderlin says, “I never expect to see him again.”

(This is Part One of a special report featured in the September 2010 issue of The American Legion Magazine)
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About Veterans' Voices

Veterans Voices is produced by Ken Olsen, a freelance writer and author who frequently writes about military families and veterans issues for national magazines
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4 Responses to America’s Forgotten Military Families: Nine years of non-stop deployments, exhaustion, anticipatory grief — with no end in sight

  1. Brian Lindstrom says:

    Thanks for such powerful reporting. I am amazed–and saddened–by what these military families are facing. They deserve our complete support.


  2. Pingback: Put DADT In Your Pipe And Smoke It! | Never Felt Better

  3. Brandy Curfman says:

    I am a military wife with a nursing degree in Another state. ive always been independent. But now I can’t even afford a bed to sleep on, and with my husband gone, I’m 13 week pregnant and havent seen a doctor because everyone keeps giving me the run around. I am very depressed, and alone and scared. I feel like I’ve been living like a savage. I really just want to go home…
    Thanks for the article.


  4. Carolyn Curfman King says:

    This is Aunt Carol-Kenny’s aunt in Stoneboro. You have been on my mind and I was praying for you this morning. Wondering how your pregnancy is going, how your beautiful daughter and you-and Kenny-are all adjusting to the changes. I have never been in the military system and have always admired those you make the sacrifice; their families sacrifice right along with the enlisted.

    With love and admiration, Aunt Carol King


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