By Danielle DeSimone
When a service member raises their right hand and swears an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, they understand that they are making a true commitment, and that those words mean something.
For members of the National Guard and our Reserve forces, they pledge that oath with the understanding that although they may not be full-time, active duty service members on a daily basis, they are still a part of the larger military community, and are crucial members of our Armed Forces who are called upon in times of need.
Recently, that need has been great.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the National Guard and Reserve forces have had to respond to an unprecedented national crisis – and will continue to do so. Current conflicts in the Middle East have resulted in the largest and longest-lasting mobilization of the National Guard and the Reserve since the Korean War. As a result, both the National Guard and the reserves have been deployed in greater numbers – and far more often. This year, the Army initiated plans for Guard units to increase operational tempo around the globe for the foreseeable future, so they can be ready to mobilize and deploy faster than ever before, doubling the units’ annual combat training center rotations. The reserves have also focused on preparing for combat readiness in the past year.
“The Guard is no longer a strategic reserve,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in 2019. “It is an operational force.”
Frequent deployments are difficult not only for National Guard and Reserve members, but also for their families – and both service members and their military families face additional challenges that are unique to their type of service. This can take a toll on these military members, which is why the USO provides programs and services designed to support all members of the military community – including the National Guard and Reserve.
Repeated Deployments Can Be Uniquely Challenging for National Guard Members and Reservists
Life as a member of the National Guard or the Reserve is very different from life as a full-time active duty service member. Although fully trained and capable, National Guard members and reservists do not always live their daily lives within a physical, military community. They are first and foremost members of their own civilian communities, in cities and towns all across the United States. They are your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends – and so their service means that they must always juggle living in both the civilian and military worlds.
However, one of the greatest difficulties for National Guard members and reservists actually occurs when they return home and reintegrate within their civilian community after a deployment overseas or to a disaster zone.
This struggle to return home can take many forms. For example, although reservists and members of the National Guard have the legal right to return to their same civilian job after they’ve been called up for active service, they nonetheless sometimes struggle to maintain their civilian career while fulfilling their duties to the military.
Also significant is that, unlike active duty service members who return home to the familiarity and supportive environment of a military base, National Guard members and reservists return to a civilian community that might not understand their military service. This can be far more than just a culture shock – without a military community awaiting them to help ease their transition, many of these service members do not have easy access to the same resources or support as service members living on a base. These reserve forces may struggle with all of the same challenges after a deployment as active duty service members – such as stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and injuries – but it is sometimes more difficult to access the same support.
With many National Guard units being deployed multiple times and more frequently, this can be especially challenging. Studies show that National Guard and Reserve troops are more vulnerable to mental health problems than active duty troops six months after deployment – 35.5% of Guard and Reserve troops are at mental health risk at this point of reintegration post-deployment, in comparison to the 27.1% of active-duty soldiers.
These struggles not only affect service members, but also those around them, affecting military spouses and military children.
Repeated Deployments Can Be Challenging for Military Spouses and Military Families
The strain of deployment is one shared by the entire military family. As service members sacrifice their time and safety to serve their communities and our nation, both at home and abroad, military spouses must suddenly hold down the fort at home, alone. Many of them must also assume the role of solo parent, while simultaneously juggling their own careers and dealing with the stress and separation from their loved one.
In times like these, having a community to lean back on is crucial – and in many active duty units, military spouses band together through organized groups, events and social media groups to ensure that their fellow spouses make it through the deployment. However, the spouses of National Guard or Reserve members do not necessarily live near a base or a large military community, so some may have difficulty easily accessing nearby resources – especially during COVID-19. Studies show that 50% of National Guard families and 43% of Reserve families feel that the local civilian community does not have resources designed for military families, leaving many of these spouses to struggle on their own.
Deployment can also pose challenges to military children – especially those who have not grown up surrounded by a military community, in which deployments are the norm. The stress of being separated from one’s parent, as well as concern for their safety, can cause severe emotional and mental distress in military children. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, “children in military families experience a range of adverse effects from their parents’ service that could have long-term implications for their mental health and well-being.” The study specifically noted that a parent’s deployment could lead to mental health problems in military children, including anxiety, depression, behavioral problems and even suicide and substance use.
The prospect of tackling such issues within the military community – especially one such as the National Guard and Reserves, which are not always within the reach of traditional support – may seem daunting. While the Department of Defense works hard to ensure all members of the military community have the resources they need to overcome the challenges of military life, the USO is always at the ready, just like our reserve forces, to step up when needed and support.
How the USO is Alleviating the Strain of Deployment for National Guard and Reserve Families
The USO is committed to supporting all members of the military community – whether they be active duty, Guard, Reserve or military family members.
National Guard members, reservists and their families can – at all times – take advantage of USO locations and centers on military installations and in airports, regardless of whether they’ve been called to duty. These centers can be particularly helpful during deployments as a place to relax, recuperate and connect back to home through free Wi-Fi, phones and programs with their fellow service members.
With the Mobile USO program, we go where they go, offering almost all of the same USO resources of a USO center from the convenience of a Mobile USO vehicle. These mobile units serve troops deployed to areas where there may not be a physical USO location available, such as in the cases of natural disaster relief or the COVID-19 response.
When on deployment, one of the greatest challenges facing our service members is being apart from their loved ones for such a long period of time. That feeling of isolation can have a profound, negative effect on troops, which is why the USO is so committed to ensuring they still feel connected to home, no matter where their service takes them. Most USO locations offer free Wi-Fi, computers and phones, and so deployed service members know that they can walk into any USO center and immediately talk to their spouse, children, friends or other family members back home – always for free.
This consistent connection to home can offer some comfort to service members while they are deployed, but can also ease their reintegration into life after deployment. By remaining in touch and involved in the lives of their loved ones while they are away, military families can have a smoother transition when their service member returns home. The distance and time spent apart suddenly does not feel so insurmountable.
Understanding that military spouses are the backbone of the U.S. military, the USO also offers Military Spouse Programming specifically geared to meet their needs, which can also be accessed from anywhere as many of the programs are now being delivered virtually. This is especially helpful for those spouses who may not live near a USO center on a military base, and to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Events such as USO Coffee Connections and USO Military Spouse Networking Events offer military spouses with a place to (virtually) meet with one another to discuss the challenges of military life, as well as to network for potential employment opportunities.
The USO is also committed to supporting military children throughout their family’s time in service, but especially during deployment. Children of National Guard and Reserve members can overcome the emotional distress of distance and still remain connected to their military parent through popular programs such as the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program. Here, military parents can record themselves reading a story to their child and send the recording and book home to them, or vice versa, with the child picking a book and sending their own recording to their deployed parent. Through programs like these, service members can still feel like an active participant in the daily lives of their loved ones, and military children can still experience the comforting ritual of having a bedtime story read to them by their parent.
Deployments can be challenging for both service members and military families alike, but support through organizations such as the USO can help ease the strain of separation and make for a stronger military community.
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