By Tracy Genica
Imagine being in a new place far away from home and family, and then having to say goodbye to your spouse for eight months – in the middle of a pandemic.
Even for experienced military spouses who might be used to coping with a deployment after a recent move, the added complication of a global pandemic during an already stressful life moment is less than ideal.
But over the past year, as the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, many military spouses did just that – and said goodbye to their loved ones for months while they navigated challenging and uncertain times back home.
How Does Deployment Affect Families During a Pandemic?
When service members deploy, military spouses are left behind to hold down the fort. While this is always a difficult reality, this past year during the COVID-19 pandemic it was even harder for many spouses. Schools were closed, childcare was limited or unavailable, jobs were difficult to find and if spouses wanted to visit family back home, it was simply impossible.
In normal times, military spouses who have recently moved can settle into their new homes by exploring the local community, however, during COVID-19 shutdowns there was little to do aside from sitting at home. Military spouses are often encouraged to quickly make new friends, create a support system and “bloom where we are planted,” but during the pandemic that was almost impossible.
Staff and volunteers at local USO centers knew that military families needed support during this challenging time, so they jumped into action and partnered with deployed units to provide programs to help families of deployed military and brighten their days, in addition to virtual and national-level USO programming.
Stepping Up to Help Families of Deployed Military
USO Camp Pendleton, located on Camp Pendleton in California – the Marine Corps’ largest base on the West Coast – hosted monthly morale-building events for military families facing deployments during the pandemic.
These events included activities like picnics at an orchard, an Easter event with real bunnies and even a day at a ranch with pony rides and a petting zoo.
The USO also created a deployment activity book for military kids to help keep them connected to their deployed parent as well as hosted drive-thru events to keep family members connected to one another while they were home during COVID-19.
“We’re so thankful for the USO during this deployment. It’s our children’s first [deployment] that they can remember and has been extremely hard due to COVID,” Jamie Pena, a military spouse, said.
“The USO has been such an amazing outlet for us during this deployment. We loved all the drive thrus. The kids and I really looked forward to them all.”
Another military spouse with three young children told the USO that if they hadn’t hosted these family events, she likely would have spent her spouse’s entire deployment at home because she was hesitant to go out alone.
Luckily, she decided to attend these USO events, was able to make friends and brought her young family out to have some fun.
Bringing the Family Connections Full Circle
Many of the deployed units who were gone during the height of the COVID pandemic have returned within the past few weeks. The USO has been invited to their homecomings to provide snacks, sign-making stations and take photos capturing these special moments.
It is particularly special for USO staff to see so many familiar faces of military families they serviced during the pandemic at these homecomings, especially on such a large installation, showing what a strong community the USO has built within Camp Pendleton.
Homecomings are especially emotional and joyful events. When military families reunite, one can see the many emotions on their faces – there are huge smiles, tears and relief that their service member is home safe.
As you watch a young child race into their parent’s open arms and they both cry tears of joy, the depth of the great sacrifices that our military families make is truly evident.
This military life isn’t easy, but the USO is here for our military and their families by providing a familiar face, a home away from home and something to smile about when times are tough.
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