My 2 year old son's anxiety was getting worse and worse and would cry if my wife wouldn't sit in the same room with him for every game, every meal... everything. He wouldn't go in another room without my wife or in the backyard alone, even if she was just grabbing something from the kitchen real fast. The strain was hard on my wife and it was affecting the ability for us to communicate. It was hard for me as well because I was torn...I wanted to help but knew I could only do so much.
Family separations are some of the hardest parts of military service after dealing with the realities of service members going into harm's way or dealing with regular upheavals during duty station changes. For most of my military career, I was single and knocked out three deployments overseas to include a tour in Iraq and two Marine Expeditionary Units by the time I was 27 years old. I got married just before my promotion to Major and would soon find out that I would have a child to take care of soon after that. I recalled as my wife went through pregnancy emotional ups and downs that were certainly not what I expected for the initial "honeymoon" of marriage thinking I was quite a bit older and had a lot of experience compared to a lot of young enlisted military personnel who got married and had kids in their late teens and early 20s. I could understand why there could be so much drama in military families as I wrestled with my own difficulties. However, I was fortunate that for three years after getting married that I didn't have to deploy or go overseas. That would change this past year with a 1 year unaccompanied assignment in order to ensure my dependents, both considered Exceptional Family Members which means they have on going medical care needs, would get appropriate medical treatment while allowing me the opportunity to serve in a key operational assignment necessary to make me competitive for promotion to the next rank; crucial for being able to retire from the military and maintain a steady state of health care benefits for my family as the sole breadwinner at this point while doing a job I love and feel very strongly called to.
It is one thing to get all kinds of briefs on best practices on family communication before separation along with reunions, it is another thing to actually go through it. One of the first issues my wife and I faced was the time zone difference. I have to really plan our communications out because my wife has a lot of various things going on back home in the states while I have my own work schedule conflicts. Sometimes this means that I need to stay up later than I would like or get up earlier to accomodate the ability to talk to my wife and son at a time they are ready to communicate. This take flexibility, humility, and sacrifice because it is easy to think as a service member that you are the only one sacrificing by going overseas and therefore should have family members cater to you. Being a Marine, it is a natural thing to want to sacrifice for my fellow Marines especially in a combat situation. However, I will admit that this sometimes gets lost when dealing with day to day life with family members we are familiar with and takes extra humility and discipline to implement. Of course, there has to be a balance and one of the ways I do this is ensuring that when I do need to stay up late or get up early, it is a day where it won't affect my work too much where I can take a nap later or something to that affect.
The next thing I came to learn was the importance of really being able to just shut up, listen, and express emphathy and support instead of trying to give advice when my wife would be upset about an issue back home. My friend LtCol Rick Wolf, USMC (Ret) told me and a few other veterans a story of how when he was a young officer stationed outside the continental United States that he tried to give advice at one point to his wife handling a 5 year old. Needless to say he realized his wife didn't care all that much about his advice because the truth was he wasn't there to really understand the dynamic or could do much about it. I have learned the same thing.
Unless my wife asks me for an honest opinion on something or we have to discuss a family decision like budgetary matters, I have learned to just keep my mouth shut and encourage her. Also, I learned that when my wife is getting anxious or angry about something and it appears that it is directed towards myself for not being there, I do my best to not get defensive, listen, and do everything I can to keep the conversation from getting heated by trying to understand the point of view my spouse is coming from. One book that really helped me with this is "Verbal Judo" by George Thompson, a former police officer and martial artist who before he passed away taught police officers and other professionals how to persuade people calmly without resorting to threats and verbal "karate" in the face of angry people. This book has been clutch in teaching me how to be a better communicator both as a husband, father, and in my profession of the military as well which unfortunately can really reward harsh verbal leadership that can be really detrimental in a family situation especially. One of my Marine friends, Ben, also provided this insight: He and his wife made it a point to not talk about negative stuff and he didn't really talk about dangerous things he did while overseas. While sometimes this can be difficult because it brings up superficial conversation, it at least helps to alleviate difficult emotional conversations that are better off had in person.
When it comes to being a leader for my kid, I got a wake up call one particular day not too long ago. My wife emailed me and told me that my 2 year old son's anxiety was getting worse and worse and would cry if my wife wouldn't sit in the same room with him for every game, every meal... everything. He wouldn't go in another room without my wife or in the backyard alone, even if she was just grabbing something from the kitchen real fast. The strain was hard on my wife and it was affecting the ability for us to communicate. I would be on the phone only to hear her flustered at my son's latest attempts to throw rocks or get into some other type of trouble. That would either dampen the call or end it all together. It was hard for me as well because I was torn...I wanted to help but knew I could only do so much. However, she sent me an article that helped calm her down which discussed how children with one or two parents deployed overseas can really experience difficulties in processing their emotions. The article is called "Effects of Military Deployments on Children" which helped my wife and me understand that my son was having separation anxiety because he didn't know where his dad was or why he had to be gone. To be fair to my son, being gone for a year is pretty much a third of his life in context which is a long time for him. I remember as a kid when my mom would go away for just a week thinking it was like...forever. I had it good though. My wife recalls her dad deploying overseas multiple times through his Navy service to include an unaccompanied tour serving on an aircraft carrier when she was in middle school so she is a little more familiar than others about the effects on families when it comes to separation. Of course, she has now realized it is much different being a dependent child from being a spouse and a mom. That being said, one of the solutions in the article talked about recording videos for children in terms of reading books. One of my senior leaders had mentioned a program called "United Through Reading" which now makes it easy for service members to record videos using their laptops or through a smartphone app that you can download. I have found using a tool called "Soapbox" has also been helpful because I can pull up a pdf on my computer and easily record my screen while having my face be recorded. Editing is easy, you share the link, and you're done. My wife told me books my son likes (which I had read to him before anyway) and we found after producing these videos which took a minimal time and effort that my son calmed down a bit. On a funnier note, my wife was struggling to figure out Zoom so instead we ended up talking through "Signal" (a similiar app like WhatsApp but more secure) and my son accidentally hit the video button so we had a video conference instead. It was a bit better that time for some reason than my first Zoom call back home where my son was looking for me at the computer for three days afterwards and throwing tantrums. One thing that was nice through all of this was that many of my co-workers and other veteran friends have kids around my son's age or not that much older and either went through similiar experiences or were going through it. One of my co-workers told me he tried to play video games with his son "Fortnight" through the computer which helped with bonding to include mentoring him to bathe as well which was an easier conversation between dad and son than mom and son.
I also realized being overseas this time around that because I didn't have my immediate day to day family responsibilities that I had a little more free time I could leverage in terms of communicating with my parents, brothers, and extended relatives that I may not always get to communicate with as much. Given the COVID-19 situation, using video teleconference tools like Zoom have become a household thing now and I have even had Zoom calls with my 85 year old grandmother! Given the various issues going on back in the states and the normal tension of me being overseas, I was able to have deeper conversations than normal which is a great investment for the future.
I say all of this to say that as a service member, it is easy to get hyper focused on your job when you are deployed or sent overseas by yourself for a time, but it is important to take time to remember to communicate with your family. I did a formal check in the other day with one of the senior officers in my command and he told me how one Marine hadn't talked to his extended family (like parents) in 3 months! Needless to say the Marine was mentored to try and stay in touch more often. Otherwise the parents would be calling up the command wondering if their son was doing ok! Leadership is all about positive influence, setting an example, and building a relationship. Just because you are separated from your family doesn't mean that this time has to be one where you "check out" from family responsibilities even if the amount of time you spend does shift based on serious job responsibilities. To be sure, I work much longer hours overseas due to the nature of real world responsibilities that I couldn't get away with back in the states, but that is understandable. I also recognize that I have a strategic opportunity to form deeper relationships with my family back home because the day to day battles of life are not as prevalent and so you can focus on other issues. This strategic opportunity is there for others as well if sought after and can actually build bridges of closer intimacy vs. tear it down. Often it depends on how one approaches the situation. Now, all of this being said, I will also admit from a service members perspective you have to learn how to release control over circumstances you don't have control over anyway. I personally pray for my family members back home and trust that God and my extended family is taking care of them vs. worry about issues I have no tangible way of dealing with. Stressing out won't help you out.
For those who have deployed or gone overseas for a period of time, what have been some things you learned to maintain strong family relationships? Please contact me at email@example.com or leave a comment on our Facebook page so I can maybe incorporate your lessons learned for our content. Well, that is it for now. Continue to stay fit for the fight and life!