Post-deployment: The Expectations, the Reality, and the Growth

They’re home.

After days, weeks, months, or years of paper chains, calendar cross-offs, or your 400th empty diet Dr. Pepper bottle (that’s probably a conservative number), that servicemember of yours is finally home.

It’s over.

I mean, it is over, right?

I thought it was over. I thought the deployment ended at the plane flight in. The finale. The big hurrah. The parades and marches and celebrations must surely mean that we were facing the checkmark of checked-off duty. It was time to return to regularly scheduled programming, time to hit play after a year-long pause and pick right back up where we left off.

I was devastated and heavily intrigued when I realized it didn’t work that way.

Here’s the beef, babes: Deployments (or mobilizations or long training schools or any long absences), well, they change people. You. Me. Our spouses. Our children. And when we change, it’s sometimes difficult for a time to find our footing. My husband and I have been through three deployments, and each return home has differed because of a variety of factors. Yet, one thing remained the same:

We changed.

Each couple and family will struggle differently. Some may find cohesion immediately and struggle only with normal marital difficulties, like who’s going to go make the popcorn or take out the trash (hint: it’s never me).

Others, my marriage included, will face trials and struggles that extend beyond those deployment days. Different contributors could be the length of deployment, any children involved, money issues, personality differences, deployment zones, branches of military, job descriptions, stressors, coping skills, religious beliefs, lack of control, marriage length, and struggles with PTS/D. The reasons for post-deployment struggles are endless and are, at times, rather surprising.

But no one told me what it would be like. I’m not sure I would’ve believe them if they had told me.

And while I have the experiences of three deployments under my belt, I thought it best to ask other military spouses* about their experiences with post-deployment expectations, the reality of those expectations, and with real growth so we can help inform military spouses of real post-deployment struggles, concerns, and joys.

This is what they said:

The Expectations of Post-Deployment:

  • “I figured [my spouse] would understand that my carefully crafted schedule that we had used during his absence was of the utmost importance and that he would jump on board without second thought.” – Army spouse, 12 years
  • “We talked all the time before [my spouse’s deployment] and emailed during. I thought we had learned how to communicate effectively.” – Army spouse, 11 years
  • “During the deployment, I got no breaks from my responsibilities and no time to myself. When [my spouse] got back, I needed a break.” – Army National Guard spouse, 10 years
  • “I thought he would jump into helping and understanding the kids.” – Army National Guard spouse, 13 years.
  • “I didn’t think I’d have to consult [my spouse] before making an executive decision.” – Army National Guard spouse, 19 years
  • “I didn’t think [my spouse] would really have changed that much.” – Army National Guard spouse, 12 years.

The Reality:

  • “During my spouse’s first deployment to Iraq, we spoke on the phone only once every 2-3 weeks. In lieu of forgetting everything I wanted to tell him (and because this was the pre-smart phone era), I kept a post-it note on my phone of all the things I wanted to tell him. Once he was home, I still added things to a mental post-it note instead of actually talking to him. We were standing in the kitchen and he said to me, ‘You’re standing right next to me, and I can tell your brain is thinking about what you want to tell me, but you’re not telling me anything.’” – Army spouse, 12 years
  • “After the initial shock of his return wore off, it was life as normal, but not. He still used his free time for him, and I still felt like I couldn’t ever get away for me. We talked about it before he left and how we could make his absence and his return better, but there are somethings you can’t plan for.” – Army National Guard spouse, 10 years
  • “I spent deployment after deployment watching him change his beliefs in his religion because of what he had seen and what he had done. His personal faith-centered ideals kept shattering and re-piecing, shattering and re-piecing over and over again. I’m not sure what he believes now.” – Army spouse, 12 years
  • “I told [my spouse] after he came home to stop touching my stuff. Not my literal stuff, but my plans, my calendar, my schedule, my rules, my everything that I had so painstakingly enacted while he was gone. He couldn’t come home and just mess it all up.” – Army National Guard spouse, 12 years
  • “I feel like I ‘found myself’ while I was gone and didn’t get as frustrated over little things as I used to, and I was a lot more chill. That was hard for my spouse to get used to.” – Army National Guard spouse, 19 years

More reality:

  • “I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t help with or what I could or couldn’t be in charge of. I didn’t know how to best help my own kids or where they needed to be or how to do all the things my wife had done while I was gone. I had no idea. It sucks because that is a really helpless feeling to have in my own house.” – Soldier, Army, 12 years
  • “Navigating through the symptoms and effects of post-traumatic stress [was the hardest post-deployment experience]. PTS often causes a blow to the psyche of its host. As a spouse, watching someone I deeply care about struggle to find value and joy in almost anything (which, prior to deployment was very easily attainable) was heartbreaking, taxing, and difficult.” – Army National Guard spouse, 13 years
  • “When I was in-country, I felt like I was doing something that held purpose. Now that I’m home, I’ve lost that feeling. Before, it felt like I was going 95 mph down the freeway doing important work, but now it feels like I’m going 15 mph in stop-and-go traffic.” – Soldier, Army National Guard, 12 years
  • “I got in the groove of my own space, so having him next to me [post-deployment] 24/7 was super hard. I wanted to say, ‘Give me some space!’ without offending him. Then having 40 days of leave – I was counting down the days until he went back to work.” – Army National Guard spouse, 19 years

The Growth:

  • “Open communication is so key. I felt like we could work through any issue (big or small) if we could just talk to each other and understand that we were both struggling.” – Army National Guard spouse, 12 years
  • “I had to struggle along with him and accept that I couldn’t fix what I couldn’t understand. He needed outside help, which, alongside a great support-group of friends and family, pulled him back to a new place of peace and self-worth, but not like the old place. It is scarred and sometimes the wounds still cause a dull sense of pain, but even then it is a beautiful place full of empathy, understanding, and self-discovery.” – Army National Guard spouse, 13 years
  • “The best advice I ever got to help my marriage after a deployment was to ‘love your spouse just as s/he is.’ Don’t try to change them. Let them know you support them and you love them regardless of the changes that may have taken place.” – Army spouse, 12 years
  • “Give them their own space. Let them do their own things. They need it as much as you do.” – Army spouse, 12 years
  • “When my spouse got back, he struggled with things that he hadn’t before (addictions, self-destructive behavior). I spent so many months of my time trying to fix him until he told me that he felt like he was just a problem to be solved. Once I started supporting him instead is when we started to reconnect.” – Army National Guard spouse, 12 years
  • “Give yourself time to accept each other’s changes and growth. I feel like we were/are two different couples: pre-deployment and post-deployment. Thankfully, I like the post-deployment couple better, but it took me a while.” – Army National Guard spouse, 19 years.
  • “My worry was having him come home and my routine get thrown off. I’m a very routine person. I was worried that I would be upset for having him home, but I WANTED him home. The emotion of going back and forth was draining, but I was more conscious when he did come home of not letting the fact that he did things differently disrupt the joy of having him home.” – Army National Guard spouse, 8 years
  • “We are much better now, but that’s because we’re dedicated to each other and making sure we communicate our wants and needs.” – Army National Guard spouse, 10 years

So, here’s the thing. Those reintegration days might be tough. They might be tough right away or after a few months. Or they might be tough for a long time. According to our local military psychologist and our camp MFLCs, however, if you feel that your spouse isn’t readjusting well after 90-120 days of being home from a deployment, please encourage them to speak to one of the many, MANY resources the military has to offer (a great start is here:

We are all rallying behind you, your spouse, and your family.

You’re not alone.

 Anything else our community of spouses would add to help another?

*All contributors have asked to remain anonymous.

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