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The Worst Military Deployment Advice… and How I Thrived Without It

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This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of MSB New Media & Unilever. The opinions and text are all mine.

It was a dark, soupy summer night in Southern Virginia, but my teeth were chattering. I stood next to John, who was wearing the same uniform he’d step off the plane in Afghanistan in in a day or two. I was trying to memorize his face in the murky night.

I was trying really, really, really hard not to cry.

Somewhere along the adventure of dating a military man–something I was a total noob at– I had picked up the idea that my job as a military significant other was to be silent and strong and uncomplaining, no matter how awful the circumstance. I was supposed to be a pretty ornament on John’s arm, someone who would give a hug and a kiss and be able to walk away from the man who had become my entire world.

And standing in the parking lot of the MAC terminal, I suddenly realized I had no idea how to do that. My stomach rolled with anxiety as my head pounded while I tried to keep threatening tears at bay.

It didn’t work.

Not even a little.

I’m proud to say that I didn’t sob a la Dwight Schrute, but I did cry more than just one stoic tear. I felt (and fought) the rising panic when I realized our time was short and the final goodbye was something that had to happen. And I definitely said goodbye like 20 times before I could actually peel myself away from the handsome man in uniform I’d be marrying in just a little over a year, provided he came home.

Military life is hard enough without really terrible advice. But people love to share unhelpful advice, especially when it comes to deployment. #military #milfam #milso #milsos #milspo #milspos #milspouse #milspouses # militaryspouse #militaryspouses #deployment #army #navy #marines #airforce #coastguard

When I drove away that June evening, I didn’t look back in the rear view mirror. I didn’t think my soul could endure seeing him, standing all alone, getting smaller and smaller behind me. Instead, I looked forward at the road and I wondered how the heck a wimp like myself would be able to make it through a whole year of this kind of grade A heartache.

I reflected on the advice people had given me or that I had gleaned from message boards and Facebook support pages… and I seriously wondered if I had what it took to be in love with someone in the military.

Thankfully, I am really bad at taking other people’s advice. (Ironic, right?) Here’s the advice we disregarded, and what we did instead:

Don’t bother him/her with your problems.

Maybe fifty years ago, this was (probably) the perfect advice to military couples, but let’s be real: most relationships just don’t function this way anymore.

And the strong, silent military couple shouldn’t be our ideal anymore either. Overwhelmingly, surveys show that military members leave the military because of the extreme stresses on their families and spouses. When we continue to tell spouses not to “be real” with each other during deployment, we’re just reinforcing the toxic attitudes that turn qualified military members away from extending their service.

After all, relationships don’t stop when the ship goes underway or when the plane takes off… and they don’t suddenly pick up again once boots touch American soil.

The strongest military relationships I know are ones where both parties share as much as they can with each other. They still have each other’s back. They make sure that they’re on the same “wavelength.” The deployed member doesn’t make his/her spouse feel less-than and takes their concerns seriously. The strongest military relationships I know are full of love and humor, forgiveness and mercy. There’s no score-keeping and there’s a lot of communication.

Of course, there are all kinds of mitigating circumstances that make it tough to stay in touch. Maybe they’re five miles below the ocean’s surface, or internet is nonexistent in the tent they’re in, or schedules are inconsistent. But hiding the issues going on at home are no way to keep the lines of communication open. And it’s the perfect way to create a tornado of resentment and anger at your spouse which will probably touchdown periodically during deployment and definitely after homecoming.

Suck it up, buttercup.

Over and over again, I receive emails from overwhelmed, frustrated military spouses and significant others who are petrified of being found out for not being strong. They wonder how the rest of us do it– because we’re all so strong all the time, right? Because I definitely didn’t bury myself in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s like every other night (okay, let’s be real: every night) of the first two weeks of deployment. Or find myself crying in the shower on more than one (dozen) occasions. And I totally start a blog during deployment because I had no clue how to process what was happening in my life.

The truth of the matter is, it’s a rare military spouse or significant other who doesn’t lose it a few times during deployment. It’s a rare military spouse who goes on with life like nothing has changed.

If sucking it up is the way you deal with deployment, more power to you! I really mean that. (If that was me, I would not have spent a king’s ransom on tissues and aspirin. Alas, it’s not.) If that’s how you deal with stress, then do what works for you.

But if it’s not, there is no shame in experiencing the emotions that come with deployment. You’ll be able to take care of your family and your relationship better when you’re able to process the experience on your terms– not a fictionalized or stereotyped version of what you think you should be doing.

Stay busy.

I’d really like to find a military spouse or significant other who isn’t busy and for whom this advice is actually sage. Maybe they exist somewhere, but my friends and acquaintances run on all cylinders all the time. They aren’t bulletproof and they can’t move faster than a speeding bullet… but many of them are Wonder Women and Supermen.

We all seem to be sandwiched between jobs (usually multiple) or education (or both), the demands of military life, kids (for those who have them), keeping in touch with friends and family from far away, volunteer positions, and the other miscellany of life. So when people offer the pat advice “stay busy” as an antidote to deployment, it makes me cringe.

Here’s the truth about staying busy: it won’t make deployment go by faster. It won’t magically make you forget the person you love or the pain you feel at their absence. What it will do is stress you out during an already stressful time. What it will do is make you feel guilty for relaxing or for taking time to process everything going on. What it will do is have you cram your life with stuff– regardless if it’s important or meaningful– and burn you out… eventually.

It’s easy to get caught up in staying busy for busy’s sake, but give yourself the time at the beginning of (or even before) the deployment to think and refocus. I’ve found that deployment bucket lists are perfect for doing just that. Creating and setting incremental goals– whether it’s weekly or monthly– works well too.

Being focused gives you purpose– whether that focus is on your career, your kiddos, health goals, new adventures you’re undertaking, or a combination of a whole bunch of things. Being focused makes it a lot easier to wake up in the morning, and it makes you excited for the next day. It gives you that feeling of accomplishment at the end of the deployment when you look back and realize the time didn’t just slip through your fingers.

And when you feel that you and your partner both were working toward goals during your time apart, it’s easier to feel like you’re part of a team. It’s easier to feel stronger in your commitment to each other and the life you’re building together.

What I realized

During deployment– especially the beginning part, before John came home for R&R— I thought about that goodbye. I thought about the last moment I touched him– right as our hands pulled away from each other. I thought about the first step away from him, and how each one after only took me further and further away from John. But I also thought about a moment right before then. John leaned in to kiss my cheek… and instead, licked the length of my face. His sister got it on camera.

Don't listen to terrible deployment advice!

Gross? Sure. Weird? Definitely.

But John knew how to make me laugh and I realized that we were two gross weirdos, but at least we were two gross weirdos together. I needed to take care of myself during the deployment so that I could be the best partner a gross weirdo could have. And that meant disregarding a whole lotta bad advice.

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2 Responses

  1. Jo, I loved your advice in a similar post about making a list of goals that would be fun or especially interesting or uplifting, rather than “things I *should* do.” It’s not about adding stress or busywork. The list acts as a pick-me-up when the goals make you feel good. I made a list like that simply to help me make the most of this year (I’m not a milso, but I’ve benefited a lot from this kind of advice to apply to other circumstances in life). It’s wonderful to look at the checklist and see how I’m making progress on things I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

  2. I was planning a wedding while my husband was in Iraq. At first it felt so trivial to discuss something like that while he was in a war zone, but he wanted to talk about it. He wanted to know every detail. He just wanted to feel like he wasn’t thousands of miles away in a totally different world. It helped him feel like he still had a life together, and helped me to feel like I wasn’t alone.

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