How Long is a Military Deployment?

By Sydney Johnson

When a service member gets the call about a new deployment, an array of emotions can wash over them. They may feel excited about embarking on a new experience and traveling to a place they may have never been before. They may be nervous about performing new skills they haven’t utilized quite yet. They may also feel sad knowing they’ll have to leave their families and spend a lot of time away from their homes, with minimal communication.

According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA), a deployment is when a service member is required to move from a home station to another location outside of the United States. A “deployment cycle,” the phrase used to describe the entire deployment process, includes everything from the initial deployment notification through the period when a service member returns home.

Deployment cycles can often look very different across - and even within – different military branches.

For example, a deployment for a Navy sailor could mean six months at sea on a ship; for a Marine it could mean flying to the other side of the world to work for a few short months; and for an Army soldier it could mean living and working in undisclosed location for up to 15 months.

Although each and every deployment is truly unique, there are a few basic facts to know about military deployments in general:

Deployments Range in Length

Navy pilots make their way to a simulated casualty during a flight deck drill on the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. | Photo credit Petty Officer 3rd Class Gabriel Martinez

The average military deployment is typically between six and twelve months long. However, deployment lengths vary greatly from branch to branch, are situational and depend on several factors specific to each individual service member.

For example, some Navy submarine deployments are less than a month long, while some ship deployments can be more than a year. On the other hand, some members of the Air Force can undergo several shorter deployments with very short breaks in between each.

Service Members Must Complete Pre-Deployment Training

Each deployment is a new assignment, so service members undergo specific training before leaving for their destination, so they are prepared for the work ahead. Sometimes, soldiers need to learn brand new skills to be successful overseas, as deployments include many different jobs.

Photo credit Lance Cpl. Ujian Gosun

A mortarman establishes a defensive position in a patrol base operations event during exercise Fuji Viper 21.1 at Combined Arms Training Center, Camp Fuji, Japan.

Pre-deployment training is required before every deployment assignment, no matter how many deployments a service member has completed, because each deployment is unique. Some service members are deployed over five times throughout their military careers, which means they’ve undergone just as much pre-deployment training as well.

Groups of Service Members or Just Individuals Can be Deployed

The number of service members that are selected to deploy depends on what kind of support is needed and how specialized the work is. For more specialized missions, a smaller unit is usually deployed, while larger teams may be sent overseas for other operations.

Typically, entire units are deployed together, but sometimes the U.S. Army deploys individuals.

Deployments Don’t Always Involve Combat

In popular movies, books or other media, military deployments are usually characterized as being very dangerous, with troops heading off to war in a remote location. While this is a possible reality for some service members, but not all deployments involve combat situations.

Photo credit Seaman Santiago Navarro

Navy seamen training on lee helm and helm operation on the ship’s control console in the bridge of the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh.

One example of a non-combat deployment is when a Navy submarine needs supplies while it is underway (at sea) for a long period of time, a Navy submarine tender – which is a type of ship designated to tending submarines when necessary – will deploy from its station with its entire crew aboard and set sail for the submarine’s location. The tender may be stationed at a port in Guam, and once a submarine’s crew requests assistance, the tender will deploy for however long it takes to supply the submarine with fuel, food, etc.

(Fun fact: Did you know that troops deployed into combat zones receive “imminent danger pay,” which is tax-exempt bonus compensation?)

Staying in Touch During a Deployment Can be a Challenge

For many service members, staying in touch with loved ones while deployed can be quite the challenge. In some cases, it can be nearly impossible.

While some deployment locations offer Wi-Fi or phones to connect back home, many others are too remote for service members to have access to any reliable communication.

Photo credit Staff Sgt. Timothy Sencindiver

More than 160 members return from a nine-month deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For example, submariners serve in a part of the Navy nicknamed the “Silent Service,” and there’s a reason for that. Submarines stay hundreds of feet underwater for months at a time. Though there are ways to email and deliver letters to these service members while they are underway, it is very difficult for them to maintain consistent communication with their loved ones while they are deployed.

Additionally, since deployments across all military branches can take service members all over the world, time zones can make it hard to coordinate with their loved ones back home.

An airman hugs her loved one upon return. | Photo credit Staff Sgt. Tony Harp

If a family is in California, and their service member is in Afghanistan, there would be an 11.5-hour time difference. Timing and lack of access to means of communications can force many families to go weeks, sometimes months, with little to no connection.

Many Deployed Service Members Can Visit a USO Center to Stay In Touch with Loved Ones

Because staying in touch with loved ones during a deployment can be particularly challenging for some service members, the USO offers several programs, like Operation Phone Home and the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, designed to help them connect back home.

Service members can be away from their homes for months at a time, but while they are in a distant location, they can stay connected to their families by taking advantage of the USO’s free services, so they can stay strong while completing their missions.

Deployment can be a very exciting and tough experience, both physically and emotionally, which is why staying connected to their loved ones is especially important.

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