My husband Matt calls the experience of being in theater “Bizarro World.” As I got off the C-17 into the dusty air of Baghdad, I was immediately in just that. It smelled like my husband when he first got home from deployment. (Sorry hun, but its true for all of you!) Granted we were forced to change our plans due to fog that limited helicopter take off. Still, so many things were notable. I hear from soldiers that coming home they are hit by the sensory overload of colors, carpet, and noises. Baghdad is crawling, at least today, with secret service or other security detail. Every door is guarded by at least 2 stern looking men. Outside the tall 10-15 ft cement walls provide security as well as walling off sections that make large alleys to walk to and fro. Outside is nothing but gravel and the sounds of incoming and outgoing aircraft is constant. I can understand why it became Matt’s white noise when deployed, why he “goes to another place” when he hears a bird.
Much of this trip has included making sure that I am following the group of press so that I am where I’m supposed to be. Today as I was talking with the Secretary’s staff, I somehow got separated from the press. Soon I found myself close to entering a meeting that I was not supposed to be part of. Once we all realized, I was grateful to be walked back to the press group by a friendly security guard/state security who basically looked like special forces in civilian clothes. It actually gave me a great chance to ask him about his assignment here. I think one of my favorite things about all of this is getting to see the branches working together. Seeing the Air Force, special forces, and today our Army doing what they do best. It seems that so many of us live within the community our service member serves in and become incredibly proud of our branch. Seeing them work together is a whole new perspective. We know they exist to work together like a machine, but seeing it is different.
I have to admit that although we got grounded today, it was not a wash. Talking to the crew on the C-17 and those that work here is enlightening. When I asked what they felt family most misunderstands, they expressed the need to decompress after they come home. They said that doing what they do takes incredible mental and physical energy. Giving them a day to decompress and get their energy back will help so they can re-engage.
As I look back, I asked Matt to engage way too quickly. I asked him to make big decisions before he had recovered. I’ve always told couples to avoid big decisions during reintegration, but I know now it’s more than that. In fact, I think back to our reintegration that was so difficult and see that he needed time to rest and heal and I was ready to move quickly- that caused a lot of tension that could have been avoided some. A little part of me is healed today because I look back on that experience with new eyes.
Talking with troops right before Christmas helped me understand the care package dilemma. After eating in the DFAC and having tons of options and yet seeing them live minimally- they really don’t have many needs. But that’s the issue, the have all their basic needs (depending on where they are) and are living so minimally they agreed they don’t let their minds stretch outside of that. So a “what would you like for Christmas” gets a “well I don’t need anything.”
We decided on items you use up like toiletries, food, and snacks they can share. I know that sounds cheesy, but when you eat the same things everyday or have to order your favorites online- getting them from a loved one is great. Living in small spaces though makes it hard when you keep getting stuff that isn’t disposable or used up. There is simply no room to put those kinds of things out. Here are my big take aways (listen to my journal for an expanded edition):
- We need to appreciate other branches more, the puzzle fits beautifully together to complete the overall mission- which is fantastic to see!
- Understand that your service member really may not “need” much during deployment, but they also may not know “what” they want. But that shouldn’t mean we send random box fillers that they won’t know where to put. Above all, a box from home that doesn’t look like grey walls, gravel, and camouflage could be heaven filled with the right things.
- Military Leaders: you may not be able to send a spouse over seas to paint a picture of what you do, but there are plenty of ways you can show them an accurate picture. Bus them to the field for a couple of hours, tell them (educate them) on the actual mission. Family days, even if it is just your leaders can reduce anxiety and give them a cause to get behind.
Some of those may sound simple, but I am trying to take into account the things that are really simple to do that we don’t realize are quite big in understanding your service member.
When it was time to fly back, the flight crew of the C-17 brought me up into the cockpit and explained the brevity of this kind of mission involving a VIP. The coordination is incredible. We talked about their families and how much they are excited to be home for Christmas this year. I looked out the cockpit window to see the night sky and the lights of Saudi Arabia in the distance. The handed me night vision goggles (NVGs) and I could see every cloud like it was day and ships on the water. I asked what is the most beautiful thing they see out the window that they look forward to: “Home.”
Stayed Tuned for Day 3 of the #MilspouseJourney.