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Understanding the Returning Warrior

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After many long months of worrying and waiting, of staying strong when times were tough, of pushing hard through fear and anticipation, your servicemember is coming home. They are the same person you have known and loved – but they have changed. Whether this was their first deployment or their fifth, whether it was to a forward operating base in thick Taliban country or to a logistics hub in Slovakia, there is no way to deploy and be completely unaffected by the long absence, the privation of friends and home and comfort, the grueling work hours and the levels of responsibility that sometimes seem impossible to sustain.

You’re not the same person, either!  A year is a long time, and no one’s life is “on hold” because someone is missing from it. We learn and change and grow, sometimes drastically, within a year’s time.

And so, understandably, there is fear and trepidation. There is nervousness every time, on every deployment, for both the warrior who has gone abroad and their loved one waiting for them – to say nothing of the children. What has changed? What has stayed the same?

One of the most difficult things for the folks who held down the fort back here in the U.S. – the brave spouses who continued to maintain life and family while their loved ones were far away from them, and in danger, is to understand what their soldier, sailor, airman or Marine has been through. Too often, warriors either can’t talk about what they’ve seen and done – or in some cases, they can’t talk about it enough. But they may not come home and give clear, concise instructions on how they’re feeling, what they’ve done and seen, and how they want to be treated now that they’re home. Part of that is due to the (justified) notion that you, as a spouse, can’t possibly understand where they’re coming through. Part of that is due to the fact that they know how much you’ve gone through, and don’t want to run you through any more ringers. And part of it is that they just may not know how to talk to you about deployment, or about what they need and want now that they’re home.


Naturally, every servicemember’s deployment comes with its own unique set of circumstances, and so everyone will be different, and have different expectations and needs when they return, depending on their personality or the nature of their experiences while they were gone. But there are some similarities in military families’ experiences that seem to resonate broadly with the majority of folks; there are some characteristics that many, though not all, servicemembers share with each other upon returning home.

  1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a very, very serious mental health issue for many returning veterans. It can result from witnessing a tragedy, being constantly exposed to the threat of life and limb, losing a friend or fellow service member in combat, or simply from the long hours and high stress levels that accompany deployments. PTSD manifests differently in everyone, and in varying levels – some people initially react very poorly to the stress they underwent while deployed but quickly recover. For some people, the after-effects of deployment last their entire lives, or don’t develop until much later in their life. If you suspect that your servicemember may be suffering from PTSD, there is help. Read Military Family’s excellent article on the subject for more information.
  2. Deployment is an All-Consuming Experience. When a service member is deployed, they eat, sleep and breathe their work. What sustains many folks through their time is their reliance on friends and comrades and dreams of the comfort of home. But there is rarely a chance for a “break” on a deployment. Even during personal time or trips back to the rear, there are still the sights and sounds, the uniforms, the weight of a rifle slung around the neck, the losses, successes or failures that haunt the memory. When the service member returns, they will likely be very, very preoccupied with their recent experiences. They haven’t had the time to adjust to life yet, and so they may withdraw and seem distant – or just the opposite. They may seem almost obsessive about their time overseas. This, like many aspects of post-deployment, will take time and understanding from you. Be there if they want to talk – and hang back, don’t pry and change the subject quickly if they don’t want to talk, or if at any point it appears that talking about deployment is causing them pain. Remember that for someone who is recovering from trauma, being forced to confront the trauma before they’re ready can re-victimize them.
  3. They Haven’t Had Any Control of Their Own Life for the Entire Deployment. It can be hard to spend an entire year, every day, getting up when someone else says, eating when someone else says, patrolling where someone tells you to, and so on and so forth. While the burdens of responsibilities are of course great and terrible, the burden of the rank-and-file warrior in needing to simply trust their leadership and give even their most basic decisions over to others can have a drastic effect on someone. One of the most common experiences that spouses have upon their warrior’s return is watching their loved one disappear into creature comforts – especially into video games. This is a common source of strife, but it needs to be handled sensitively. For those of you who aren’t gamers, it can be hard to understand how great of a sense of agency your loved one has by being able to play video games – they can control their environment, they are utterly responsible for failure and success, and they get immediate, tangible accomplishments. It also provides them an almost meditative experience where they can think and work through their feelings while keeping themselves distracted.  If they need to disappear into the world of Modern Warfare or Skyrim or StarCraft II, let them; it can be very therapeutic for a returning warrior. Just remember that if they are spending so long with the video games that it’s affecting their work or their life, or if they’re shirking responsibilities in order to play games, they may be seeking an escape. If their withdrawal lasts longer than a few weeks, it’s okay to gently suggest that they diversify their interests. But don’t attack them or get resentful – it’s not only common, for many returning warriors, it’s incredibly beneficial.
  4. They May Feel Very Needy. They’ve been gone for a long time, away from the comforts of home, away from a safe and secure environment, and they may demand lots of extra attention or special treatment when they first get home. Oftentimes, returning warriors aren’t 100% sure about all of their emotions and feelings, where they’re coming from, and how they should deal with them. So they over-rely on their partners, and this can be stressful. After all, haven’t you been through a trial, as well? Haven’t you fought back the tears when the times got tough? Haven’t you ached for them? Hasn’t their absence from your life been like something jagged that has torn at you? All of that is true – they’ve gone through a lot, but you’ve also been through hell and a half. You deserve to have that recognized. This will be a trial, but your warrior needs more strength from you. It’s going to be hard for them to readjust to the sounds, smells and sights of home. It’s going to be hard to remember to take out the garbage and put their dishes into the dishwasher – and will likely take them an extraordinary amount of willpower just to get out of bed and go back to work once their leave is up. You’ve got to be their rock for a while longer, until they can readjust and reenter life on their own terms. Once again, it’s important to remember that this should only be temporary, and if it lasts longer than a few weeks or a month, they may have a deeper mental health issue that needs to be addressed.
  5. They May Be Frightened About the Future.  Adjusting to any major change can cause a person a lot of anxiety. One thing to remember is that they had to completely switch existential gears when they deployed – and now they have to shift again, back to your level. They may be nervous about finances, or about making a transition (again) from the military to the civilian world. They may exaggerate their own fears, or blow simple problems way out of proportion. If it seems like your returning warrior is over-reactive, don’t confront them about it. You need to help them feel safe and secure again. It’s a process, and it takes time. Help them establish a new routine at home, and be consistent and stable with them – in much the same way you would with a child who has undergone a major life change. Above all, be patient. 9 out of 10 times, simple time will return your warrior to full health and happiness.

Of course, there are many, many more tips out there to help you understand the mindset of your returning warrior. And if at any time you are concerned about depression or their mental health, you should be ready to get help for them. But for most families, nothing will help you help your warrior like simple communication – even if they can’t come right out and tell you what they need, or why they need it, keeping them talking about their feelings will help you support them in the best way possible.

I’d love to hear more experiences and insights and tips for understanding the mindset of homecoming warriors in the comments!

(image via http://www.reedsway.com/ohiomarines.htm)