The day your service member returns from a deployment is one of the most anticipated events in your relationship and the life of your family. You probably want it to be perfect for your loved one. No matter how much you plan and how great your intentions are, it’s not going to be a flawless, airbrushed Hollywood moment, and the reintegration process that follows won’t always be smooth, but it can still be wonderful. Here are some things to prepare for:
- Neither of you will be picture-perfect. The day of the homecoming ceremony, your hair will get messed up between the time you arrive and the time you finally see your spouse; about that same time, you will realize that you forgot to wash the dishes before you left the house (and he or she won’t mind). Don’t worry. The first time you hug your newly-returned loved one, he or she will be on the second or third day without a bath (and you won’t mind).
- Your service member will be tired. This doesn’t mean that he or she just needs to sleep off the plane ride for a day or two. It means that for the last 12 months or more, your partner has worked at least six days a week, usually in shifts of twelve hours on days when things went perfectly. Nothing goes perfectly in a combat zone, of course, so in reality your partner will have worked seven days a week, sometimes two or more days back-to-back, with his or her sleep frequently interrupted by work or enemy action. Exhaustion is cumulative, and your spouse has a lot of it piled up. Be patient.
- There may be trouble sleeping. Despite being thoroughly exhausted, your service member may have a hard time getting to sleep or staying asleep, especially at first. This is probably due in part to the change in time zones and sleep schedules, but it can also be a leftover effect of the deployment. Your spouse has probably spent month having to sleep lightly, on an irregular schedule, and in short intervals; as draining as that can be, the body does get used to it in a way, and returning to an eight-hour-a-night schedule takes some adjustment. He or she is also adjusting to sleeping at home again; this is not where he or she has slept for the last several months, and unfamiliar noises may make it difficult to relax at first. You both may have trouble adjusting to sharing a bed with another person. Again, be patient, and talk to a doctor if it doesn’t improve after a few weeks.
- Driving will be different. Although returning service members are technically not allowed to drive for twenty-four hours after homecoming, adjusting to normal stateside driving may take significantly longer for some. My husband spent a week or two being very excited about driving something he could legally drive faster than 40 MPH (the theoretical speed limit for most Army vehicles under normal circumstances). I spent a week or two covering my eyes and begging him to let me drive. Depending on your spouse’s unit and job, he or she may also have been driving in situations that required him or her to develop habits like not yielding to other traffic or reacting suddenly to debris in the road (which might be a hidden explosive, over there). This can make your spouse’s driving a little aggressive. Don’t yell, but do calmly encourage your partner to relax and drive safely.
- Your spouse may have forgotten some household routines. Your loved one has been away from your family and your household for a year or so. In that time, you may have changed some routines, either because things naturally change over time or because the new routine was easier for you in your spouse’s absence. He or she may have a hard time adjusting to these new routines, and he or she may not remember all of the routines that haven’t changed. Expect to make some changes to accommodate your service member, and offer gentle reminders when needed.
- He or she may seem to “shut down”. My husband spent most of his block leave catching up on his PS2 games, which caused some conflict in our household. I had expected him to come home and step in to alleviate some of the stress I had felt over the last year of running a household alone. He had voiced the same expectation prior to his return. Neither of us took into account that when all the stress he had been under during the last year of deployment was suddenly gone, the mental and physical exhaustion it left in its wake generated a lot of inertia. He hadn’t gotten to spend a carefree afternoon just relaxing in months, and it took a few weeks to recharge. This is normal; communicate and express your needs clearly, and be patient.
With realistic expectations, flexibility, and a sense of humor, your service member’s homecoming and the process of reintegration can be perfect, in their own wonderfully imperfect way.