Facing the Challenges of Separation
By Steve Alpert
Deployment means the dreaded tearing away of a family member.
The moment of separation cuts like a knife, but the call of duty to country overrides the needs and wants of a family.
Deployments, like an old jazz standard, never go away. They’re part of the cost of protecting the freedoms we all enjoy. That price is paid for by the service members and their families.
So, when troops deploy, they are sent off with hugs, kisses, I love yous and, invariably, tears. It’s a scene that has played out countless times across the country since 1776. Loved ones in uniform disappear into the distance. Already feeling the loss deep in their souls, everyone left behind waves goodbye.
Without fanfare, life rolls along while an unmistakable undercurrent pulls at each family member. An important part of the family is missing, like a band playing on without its bass player.
It’s what many military families with children face. Major challenges lurk in the wake of a family member’s deployment. Two families in Texas, both with fathers who have served overseas, have met these challenges head on.
The kids experience fear and worry. They know dad is off to war and are afraid for him. Mom has to be strong for her kids, for her husband, for herself. Initially, not every family is prepared for such challenges, but there are strategies that help families cope.
The military offers support for families coping with a deployment, and there are nonprofit groups like the USO’s program partner Comfort Crew for Military Kids based in Austin, Texas. But the support, is just that—a helping hand. The real work to keep the family together comes from within. Both mothers said the same thing: “We do the best we can.”
Deployed dads need to know things are working at home so they are able to focus on performing their military duties. They cannot be burdened with the day-to-day struggles of the family they’ve left behind.
Colleen Stearns of Belton, Texas, is a mother of three young children. Her husband, Army 1st Lt. Stephen Stearns, was deployed to Afghanistan for a five-month stint as an artillery platoon leader at a remote outpost where the daily diet included hostile fire. Colleen said she and Stephen have created a structure in the family where everyone works together to keep things rolling.
“There’s no complaining, and we all help each other,” she said. She comes from a military family and is familiar with the regimented lifestyle that’s “all about teamwork, being resilient and adapting to the situation.”
Sara Jane Arnette of San Antonio has three young boys, Gammon, 7, Harrison, 5, and Levi, 3. Arnette, who’s earning her master’s degree in organizational leadership, said she quickly learned her husband’s first deployment—as a military police officer in Kuwait—was all about service.
“It was difficult at first, I would cry, then the baby would cry and Gammon, my oldest, would try and comfort me,” she said. “I quickly learned that the situation was not about me, and that we were all in this together. I am very proud to say my husband serves in the United States Army. There’s no greater feeling.”
Arnette understands the importance of service, having served in the Peace Corps in Moldova.
“My role as a military spouse became about being independently dependent on each other. The greater the challenge, the more I have to step up to the plate. And that’s what we all do as a family,” she said. “We have to be a team to maneuver this together.”
That’s especially true when the landscape changes during each absence.
“I’ve had three deployments. Sara had two pregnancies while I was gone,” CPT Sam Arnette said. “Every time I came home the family unit was different. There was a new baby, things had changed. I had to assess the situation, be flexible and find my new place in the family.
“Before I would leave I would tell my oldest boy, Gammon, that he was the man of the family, that he had to do what he could to help his mother and his younger brothers.”
Sam proudly recalled that Gammon would help bathe his brothers and generally help in every part of the family’s life.
“Gammon would even prepare dinner for the family,” he said. “And you know, for Gammon that would mean peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But he did it.”
Stearns works full time as a public high school academic dean an hour from home. She describes the family’s nanny as “more like a grandma” to her kids, Caitlyn, 10, Caroline, 8, and William, 1. The challenge is huge but the Stearns have put in the effort to make it work and to make the kids feel secure and special.
“When my husband left for one year for training, we thrived on structure and routine—very regimented,” Stearns said. “I’m an Army brat myself and grew up here, there and everywhere. I learned about resilience from being in a family where everybody takes care of each other and does their part. We also try to keep things consistent when Stephen is away, and I pick up where Stephen can’t help.”
An essential element for success is open communication and the security to express feelings. Before deploying, Stephen explained to the kids that he had to go far away “to fight the bad guys so the bad guys don’t come here.”
“We told the kids that their dad is special because he performs service, and because we support him, we are special because we are giving service, too,” Stearns said.
With deployment also comes the reality of signing wills and other paperwork that is a part of going to war. For the Stearns family, their strong faith is also important. “We have a strong spiritual connection, we talk about God having a plan for us … and we live according to his will. This works for us.”
Emotional openness and honesty are key to a family unit withstanding the absence of a deployed parent, and these days it seems more parents are opening up about their job and why it’s important.
In previous conflicts, families stayed in touch through letters sent through the mail and the occasional, treasured phone call. Today, connections are frequent and nearly instantaneous. The lifeline of daily contact with Skype and FaceTime provides a sense of continuity that lessens the longing and worry and keeps the whole family current on what’s happening. Regular communication, made possible by new technology, is critical to maintaining a sense of closeness.
The Arnette boys have a bonding ritual they call “doughnuts with Dad.“ “Now with Skype, Sam and the boys can still have their ‘doughnuts with Dad’ together,” Arnette said.
At the very least, this relatively consistent communication is a vast improvement over what military families endured in the past when letters could take months to cross an ocean. The bottom line is, it isn’t easy, but families who work at it can find success.
It is clear the whole family is serving our nation. This is the reality of military service.
–Steve Alpert is an artist and author of "Worth Fighting For.” To view works by the author, visit SteveAlpertArt.com.
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