What You Can Do During a Communications Blackout

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It’s something that you’ll most likely experience at least once during a deployment: a communications blackout.

When John was deployed to Afghanistan, we experienced a few comms blackouts. No matter the reason for them, they were always sudden and unnerving, at least for me– a fiance who didn’t know a thing about deployment to begin with.  I was learning everything for the first time. And honestly, everything felt kind of scary. Including comms blackouts. Especially comms blackouts.

We were lucky: John usually had readily available access to the internet. He had his laptop (but not a phone) which enabled us to talk frequently on Skype and through email and instant messaging. Communications were usually pretty fast and I could usually count on hearing from him at least once every other day, if not daily. That kind of access also had a downside. It meant that a communications blackout felt wayyyy more noticeable and foreboding.

And with good reason. Comms blackouts can happen when newsworthy incidents happen near or at the place where your spouse is deployed, that includes deaths, injuries, and other similar events. In these instances, the blackouts are meant to contain information so that proper channels can be notified, including families, before that information gets to the public. But communications blackouts can happen for other reasons too, which is important to remember.

During deployment, communications blackouts can be scary, especially if you don't know what they mean or how to be prepared for them.

I wish that someone had told me about communications blackouts before the first one. I would have understood it and weathered it much better. That’s why I’m writing this– because, even though no one wants to talk about some of these things, we need to. When you’re armed with knowledge and other people’s experiences, you’re more confident and comfortable in the deployment journey. Here are a few suggestions on what to do during a communications blackout:

Don’t freak out

I know, I know, easier said than done, especially if you’ve never experienced one before. But communications blackouts do not necessarily mean that the worst has happened. Communications blackouts can happen for a variety of reasons and have a variety of lengths. And of course, a communications blackout can happen inadvertently if there are technical issues wherever your person is deployed or stationed.

Do the thing

For some folks, praying is a great source of balance. For others, it’s powerlifting or kickboxing. I kept Joshua 1:9 taped to my work computer and in my wallet and read it when I needed to. Maybe you just want to zone out, watch a terrible movie, and eat some cookies. Maybe it’s cuddling with your kids or puppy (or both). Maybe you do all of these things… or none of them. Find the thing that helps you center yourself and do the thing.

Write a letter

Grab a piece of paper and a pen and write a message to your spouse the ol’ fashioned way. You can get all of your frustrations and worries out on paper. While it’s obviously not like Skyping or sending emails, writing a letter can still give you the release of communicating with your spouse, even though they won’t get it right away. When the blackout ends, it’s up to you whether you send the letter, keep it, or destroy it.

Talk with your spouse group

If you have access to a Key Spouse, Ombudsman, FRG, or other military-sanctioned support system, this is the perfect time to lean on them, especially if you’ve never experienced a deployment or a communications blackout before. They will most likely not be able to give you additional information about the situation, but they might be able to give you at least a listening ear and some suggestions for how to cope. (And, of course, they’re in the same boat with you. It’s always nice to have others who get it.)

Avoid speculating

It is so tempting to speculate why there is a communications blackout. The truth is, when it’s over– and it will end– you may never find out why it happened. In my experience, speculating– whether by yourself or with others– is an easy way to get even more upset and anxious about the events. It invites the “monsters under the bed” to come on out. And honestly, during deployment, there are enough of those to go around.

Don’t share

If the blackout is because of an injury or fatality, don’t share the information. Periodt. You might be relieved that your spouse is okay or trying to share condolences. Imagine, though, finding out that your loved one was injured or killed from a social media post or a conversation in the grocery store. Not only is it awful, its cruel. And, if you’re passing on rumors, consider that you might be creating much more stress and frustration for another military spouse, too.

Be smart about OPSEC and PERSEC

It is so, so tempting to emotionally vomit everywhere on social media when there’s a comms blackout. You’re nervous. You’re worried. Maybe it’s already been a bad day at work or the kids have been nuts or you’re PCSing on your own, so your nerves are even rawer than normal. Keep your head and resist the urge to freak out online. It’s natural to throw caution to the wind when you’re upset; humans want to be comforted and validated. But keeping your head when it comes to OPSEC and PERSEC is really important. If you need to vent, call your mom or a trusted friend or family member. Write it out in a journal. Scream it out into a pillow.

Stay away from the news

Or at least, be a careful consumer of the news. Especially when your spouse is deployed, especially when they’re deployed to an area of conflict, it is so, so, so easy to keep your ear tuned to the news. But it can also make the time during a communications blackout excruciating. It is so, so, so easy to “read tea leaves” into news stories that may just happen to take place close to where your loved one is stationed. It’s so, so, so easy to just sit on pins and needles and to jump every time breaking news is announced. I’m not saying that you should be uninformed or that you can’t read or watch the news. You know you best. Give yourself parameters for how you’ll consume the news: maybe that means you’ll remove the notifications from your phone, or will only read news stories for 15 minutes at the beginning of the day. Or maybe you’ll swear it off entirely. No matter what you choose, be aware of how much time you spend with the news… and how it affects your emotions and how you can function.

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