While the days of back-to-back-to-back deployments have waned a bit in recent years, ask any military spouse and they will tell you that the OPTEMPO – or Operational Tempo of their service member’s unit – or how busy they are – isn’t exactly one of late mornings, early evenings, and consistent family dinners. We remain a nation preparing for the worst the world has shown. We remain a nation of sons and daughters preparing for what may come.
And that means training, always training.
I suspect there are a lot of civilians who would be surprised to understand the training environment fully, to realize how technically competent our service members have to be at their craft to ensure success and maximize the safety of all. They’d be surprised to learn that to a family, a nine-month deployment is actually more like 15 months due to the lead-in training required. A 12-month deployment means about 18 months of separation. Back-to-back deployments took their toll on families because back-to-back deployments meant, at best, six months together over 24 months. But I digress…
So, they train and train on perishable skills. Translation: a month away at a training center or two weeks “in the field,” both with limited contact home. Again, and again.
And that means separation and solo parenting.
Asking for help isn’t my best trait. I tend to play the I-need-to-be-strong-enough-for-this game with myself. I’m getting better, every year, but in my early years as a military spouse, I completely sucked at it. Completely.
In spite of getting in my own way, some people were a lifeline to me. And if you want to be that for your military-spouse friends, these are some tips I can offer:
Know That Experience Does Not Matter
I mean it does, but it doesn’t. Assume your friend doesn’t have it all figured out – because they probably don’t. We survived five deployments as a family, and every single one was so incredibly different. What I learned during one deployment barely served me well in another. Our kids changed, our marriage changed, my job changed, our network changed. Each deployment is unique, and taking them one day at a time is all any of us can do.
Assume You Are Needed
In some ways, this is THE best piece of advice I can give you. Believe you matter. Assume you are needed. I’ve been blessed to have a handful of civilian friends who sought out understanding. They asked the questions. They engaged in support on a level that saved me. As an introvert, making close friends inside the military community doesn’t come easily or quickly. It takes me about 9-15 months before I feel connected to a community – and before feel like I genuinely have those people I can call in the middle of the night so that I can head to the ER with one kiddo while the other remains sleeping at home.
I’ve heard more than once from my non-military circle “how great it is that you have all the other military spouses to lean on for support.” Yes. And No. For me, it wasn’t that simple. We didn’t live near the military base. I had a handful of military spouse neighbors who were amazing and saved my butt from a variety of “emergencies” more than once. But that was it. With two small kids and a 30-minute drive to unit events, connecting with the unit could be fun but also taxing. And remember, I am an introvert, so there’s that.
I knew people, and I’m sure in a pinch I could have called on them, but they were going through the same thing. I was always hesitant to lean on those that were already leaning into their own separation. So, while those around me assumed I had an extensive network of support, the reality was that network was MUCH smaller than they thought.
Admittedly, some of that was my own doing, my barriers to asking for help. I see that now, but I didn’t see that then. So, I just carried the weight, no matter how heavy. What I’ve also noticed is that military spouses can be hesitant to lean on others from the same unit out of some fear that the fact they are struggling will “get back to their Soldier,” or they’ll become the subject of gossip. So, they buckle down and struggle, quietly. But, having friends outside those circles to lean on proved vital. So, you ARE needed.
Make A Plan
Sounds simple, right? A few years ago, I’d expressed to a college friend how anxious I was with ANOTHER deployment looming. Working while being a solo parent to our two kids, ages 1.5 and 3.5, was going to be straight up hard. I remember her words through the phone, “It’s one of my goals this year to figure out how to support you better. Let me help you!” And she did. She didn’t ask; she just told me she was going to be there. And she showed up.
We planned to alternate traveling the three hours between our homes in NC, every other month. And we stuck to it. And for that one weekend, every other month, my kids and her kids played without a care in the world, and I had an entire weekend of having my load lightened. For one weekend, which amounted to more than five visits over those ten months, someone had my back. It wasn’t easy, packing up the kids when it was my turn to travel, but it was worth it. Every. Time. She’d made me a priority, and it meant everything. And having something to look forward to meant everything to our kids.
Set A Reminder to Call
I know that sounds simple, but call. Seriously. What I’ve learned over the years is that most of my non-military friends consider me strong. They believe that because we chose to walk this path, we are strong enough to handle it. The reality is we walk this path whether we are strong enough or not. We walk this path because we love our spouse. Some years we are strong, and we nail it, some years we nearly drown, and some years are a strange blend of feeling like a rock star and a failure. But what I know to be true is that receiving a message saying someone is thinking of you and knows you’ve got this means everything. Another friend, who lived hours away, was my “caller.” Every few days, just checking in. She’s who I’d cry to when I was scared, tired, or just ready for this separation to be over. After I called my sister, she’s who I called when I went into labor, in the middle of the night, alone.
Send A Card
This tip may be the old school Army spouse in me, but mail from a mailbox does make a military spouse feel like a kid again. Seeing my husband’s handwriting on the return address of an envelope was THE best feeling. Admittedly, writing home isn’t his best trait. But it was THE best when it happened. So, consider the flip of that. Grabbing the mail and seeing a surprise card from a friend saying “hey, thinking of you” does two things: it fills the quiet let down of not seeing mail from our service member, AND it gives a boost of support. In the age of emails and video calls, cards still matter.
Deployments aren’t as frequent as they were a decade ago, and lengthy back-to-back deployments are even less the norm. But make no mistake, separations are still happening. Birthdays and anniversaries are still missed, year after year, for mission-essential deployments and training.
It’s been an enormous blessing to spend many of our military years living within hours of my family. During separations, our kids spent birthdays or milestones surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I know we were lucky. And while having family nearby made things easier on us, they had their own commitments, own jobs, own lives. They couldn’t always be there. My friends become an extended family, and their layer of support meant everything.
Know a military spouse and curious if this resonates with them? Send it to them and ask. “Would it help you if I did some of these things for you?” or “Please let me know the next time your spouse is away for a long period, maybe I can help with some of these tips.”
Are you a military spouse? Tell us about the friend who helped you most during a recent separation or deployment. What would you add to this list of tips?
Jennifer is a military spouse of 12 years, 6 moves, and 4 duty stations. She’s also a business owner and lover of travel, Italian wine, German Christmas markets, fireworks, comfy socks, cream cheese icing, warm bath towels, and morning snuggles with her kiddos.