It’s happened over and over in military homes across the country. The children are busy tracing their handprints on welcome home signs while favorite meals are being prepared in the kitchen. Well-meaning family and friends are practically busting down the door to welcome their hero home.
Inevitably, there are plans for dinner parties, re-do’s of missed holiday parties and nights alone on the town for the service member and their loved one after months apart. You’re ready to party, but they may just be ready to rest.
“The family has obviously missed them, and the soldiers missed their family — but they’ve also been dodging bullets. The majority of the guys returning need at least some downtime,” says psychologist Dr. Terry Lyles, who specializes in stress management.
“Once they go into public, if they haven’t debriefed, it’s almost like they’re putting on a show,” Lyles says. “It’s frustrating. It’s another type of order they’re following that they have to be here.”
How to Celebrate
You want to head to Disney World; he wants to stay closer to home. She wants to have everyone he’s ever met over for a barbecue; you want to keep her to yourself for a few days. In order to have a peaceful homecoming, Lyles said couples should discuss their plans together before redeployment.
He suggests a two-prong approach to planning for homecoming. First, Lyles suggests that at first, the soldier should be surrounded by immediate family only — and that means whomever they considers immediate, be it a spouse and kids alone or core family joined by a brother or cousin or other family member.
The soldier, Lyles stresses, needs to be involved with the negotiations over how they spends their first days at home.
The time the family spends together should be calm and welcoming, not loud and party-oriented. This initial arrival time can go on for days or weeks, Lyles says, depending on how long the service member needs to “unpack their head and really reconnect with those closest to them.
“Phase one is the most important piece, because it gives them time to relax a little and reboot and get ready for that party atmosphere,” Lyles says.
In phase two of Lyles’ plan, he says soldiers should begin to reconnect with their extended family and community. This is when you throw the party. Again, the service member needs to be involved in the planning of activities.
“The biggest thing is not letting him feel he has no control,” Lyles says. “He’s just left a deployment. The last thing he needs is to be deployed to a party.
“It’s OK for him to come home and say, ‘I’m not going to do anything.’ That’s healthy,” Lyles says, adding that forcing anyone to do something they don’t want to can drive them to compensatory behaviors, such as excessive running, drinking or cocooning at home.
“These are all by-products of them feeling out of control,” he says.
Communication, Lyles says, is the oil in the engine of a relationship that allows the couple to operate well under extreme pressure. And in some cases, Lyles says, the spouse will have to adjust their expectations.
“He may not want to go to Disney on leave and then return to the war, but you could do something similar, maybe go to a local water park,” Lyles says. “You have to communicate.”
So, your soldier never left the base once during the deployment. They never witnessed a firefight or suffered an IED attack. That doesn’t mean they are ready to hit the town.
“Trauma doesn’t have to be seen; it can be felt,” Lyles says. “These guys know they are under the fear of attack constantly. Trauma can be just as profound when it’s perceived or experienced — the mind doesn’t know the difference.”
Not to mention, after 15 months of being told what to do, soldiers become frustrated, go home and cause collateral damage when they’re told what to do there, too.
“The first land mine they step on is at home sometimes,” Lyles says. “That’s not good.”
Lyles says spouses may not understand why their servie member doesn’t jump up to help them when they return home. After all, they’ve also been on their own, and stressed, for up to 15 months.
But he likens the situation to pregnancy. A new father needs to understand what his wife is experiencing without feeling any of the pain. Now, the spouse at home needs to understand what their service member is feeling without experiencing the pain of what they’ve been through. It’s difficult, Lyles says, to put yourself in the other person’s skin.
“They don’t need sympathy,” Lyles says. “They both need empathy; they need to understand where the other one is coming from.”
Still, if a soldier stays holed up, away from family and friends, persistently for months on end, they may need professional help for depression or recovering from the trauma they’ve experienced.
“It’s OK to be depressed; it’s OK to need help,” Lyles says. “It may take longer to acclimate into the larger scene of society, depending on the severity of the trauma and who they are as an individual.”
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