In the way of deployment, I have been one of “the people at home” twice as a cousin, once as a friend-like-family, and intermittently as a new friend/sponsor. It teaches you about what is really important, and also what people go through to defend this country and others. I highly recommend the experience of being a contact for someone who is deployed, if you have the nerves for it.
My Marine Cousin
Back in the Vietnam era, my cousin, Danny, was a Marine. He had several tours of duty. My mother and he exchanged letters as often as was possible. She sent him baked goods, and whatever else she could. Her letters and packages made his day when they finally arrived. It is hard for me to imagine in this time of quick postal delivery and instant email what it would have been to regularly wait and wonder for weeks for a personal update.
Now, I remember a little about my cousin’s day of deployment. I remember an airfield, and being picked up and carried around it. I remember just about as much about all their letters. I was able to read some of them later, and I got a much better understanding of Danny’s life during deployment in Vietnam. Communication was slow, but communication was key to survival and connection to that other waiting world. When one is so far away, connection to something seemingly normal can make all the difference. This experience was also my introduction to PTSD, finding out later that Danny was not the only one in the family to have it.
I didn’t realize then, as the children of the newly deployed also do not, that I was seeing some of the last of my cousin’s innocence, in ways. The danger was not apparent to me. This was my cousin, and he’d be back, and that was that.
Thankfully, he did come back, but not the same as he was. Combat, and the lack of support from so many during Vietnam, had created a different person by the same name. Danny did well for his circumstances. He was kind, intelligent, and tough, but things were never as they used to be for him. Mom and Danny were extremely close throughout his entire life. She was one of his greatest supporters and confidants.
My Soldier Cousin
Not too many years ago, my cousin, Sheri, was deployed as a mental health professional for the Army. “Captain Cousin”, as I called her, was stationed in Kuwait. While seemingly safer, it had all the trappings of nearby locations…heat, sand, cramped quarters, and the rest. She told me stories of sand getting into everything…electronics, gear, and people. She assured me that sand can go where no one could even imagine. You learn a lot of important things when in contact with those in the middle of deployment. You try to laugh a lot, just to keep going forward.
Sheri’s job was as a Psychiatrist. She spent countless hours listening to and helping soldiers who had been deployed in combat zones. She and I communicated via email. I sent her packages through the mail. Later on, I happily congratulated Sheri on becoming “Major Cousin”, all the while lamenting the loss of alliteration for her amusement! Sheri made it back safely, but no doubt, she carries memories of her own deployment, as well as the many stories of the soldiers she encountered and helped while there.
There is a commonality I have noticed about the Military who are deployed – family, friends or “strangers” (at first), alike. They essentially ask for nothing, and appreciate everything. I have verbally wrestled with a few, including my friend, to find out what is best to send, down to what brand is preferred. There is only so much space in boxes. What arrives might as well be really needed or a favorite! I won, and consequently, so did they. Once again, just having someone show from far away that they care in words or in gifts, means a lot.
Quite a few of the deployed, from what I’m told, have no one back home. Add this lack of mail/contact to feeling isolated, being in extreme cold or heat with heavy gear, cramped quarters, lack of privacy, a routine for everything but breathing, and subject them to that for a year or so. That is quite a lot to ask of anyone. All that, and the feeling that no one cares.
Missing someone is bad. Not having someone to miss may be even worse. How unappreciated and expendable they must feel in a combat zone.
My Friend-like-family, the Soldier
The best education I have gotten about the Military, deployment and PTSD, came from my friend. It started years ago and our discussions have continued ever since. He took me through every step of everything. He, being used to deployments, joked about some things, such as my excessive worrying, while telling me factually about things of deployment that were never fun.
I got emails from combat zones, all read by someone else for security purposes. When he went from location to location, I would wait weeks to hear from him. He was wonderful about letting me know he was safe, as quickly as he could. He told me the allowable basics of his missions, sent me pictures, and put a lot of effort and patience into all of this and in his explanations so that I could learn as much as possible, without being exposed to actual deployment, how things went. I can never repay him for all that he did, and all of the “so many questions” questions, as he described them, he braved to help me learn.
How quickly you realize that the week or weekend of a deployed soldier is not at all like yours! I was on the phone with a soldier once, and he told me that the noise in the background was a convoy leaving base. I wondered if they would make it back. He told me later that this one did.
Just in Afghanistan and Iraq, conditions from base to base were in stark contrast. Some had email, some had only mail, some, like my friend with good contacts had both! I have received quite a few letters from deployed soldiers, all grateful for contact or supplies. Some told me how they had made friends, and immersed themselves in the culture. Others were often on patrol.
These two groups had completely different tales to tell those at home. They react very differently to being back home. Part of the key to helping our returning deployed is to understand which type of experience they had, details of how comfortably or uncomfortably they lived while there, and the level of threat that constantly surrounded them.
Our G.I./”Goverment Issued’s” may look alike in matching uniforms, and may all travel away under the same term, “deployment”, but many similarities end there. A little gentle research into the details of the returning individuals provides much insight. That is your chance and your clue to help when they return to you, the people at home…