Published: December 10, 2021
Making the Most of Time Together
Deployments are hard on military families. For Dawn like so many military spouses she struggled to find ways to remain connected to her deployed husband. Eventually that struggle led to severe anxiety attacks.
Have you ever heard a civilian friend or family member vent about nights or weeks away from their significant other and thought to yourself, “Only a week away? What a dream!” Spending more of the year apart than together is something not too many outside of this military life recognize, let alone understand, that it’s just par for the course. Because it’s not just deployments that pull service members away. It’s field time, schooling, temporary assignments, and training. And there’s always a lot of it!
For Dawn, a National Guard and Reserve spouse and mom of four, adjusting to the high frequency of time apart was difficult. “My husband was a Reserve soldier for many years before 9/11,” she shared. “In that time, life was pretty normal. He was a banker, I was a teacher, and every few weeks, he traveled to Nebraska from our home in South Dakota for his Reserve duty. I had minimal involvement with the military; it was his side gig. In 2001, he was promoted to branch manager at the bank, and things were going very well. Then, that terrible morning happened. That act of violence, of terror on 9/11, set our little family on a course that would forever change our lives.”
In the months that followed, Dawn’s husband would get called up to Fort Carson, Colorado, to conduct training for troops heading overseas. It was a relief that he would remain stateside, especially given that Dawn had just learned she was pregnant with their first child. So, at the start of 2002, Dawn’s husband set out on his assignment to Colorado. “Originally, the timeframe was six months,” Dawn recalled. “He would be home in time for the birth, he would return to the bank, and life would return to a new normal. Then, the extension came. They were moving to Fort Bliss for another six months. As those six months were coming to an end, there was talk of another extension, this one up to 12 months. The bank had figured out a solution for the year, but two years was really a strain. Michael felt like his command was going well and that he was contributing to his country and his calling, so we started discussing the Active Guard aReserve (AGR) program. He applied and was accepted. So, after 18 months of being on active-duty orders, he signed the papers to be permanently on active-duty status.”
This decision would mean more time apart over the next decade, including two year-long deployments. The adjustment wasn’t easy and left Dawn struggling to find ways to remain connected to her husband and keep her family afloat on the home front.
“The sharpest memories I have from the deployments are with the phone,” Dawn shared. “During the first deployment, I had to buy an extra cordless phone handset (this was back in 2005) for the 10-minute weekly phone calls Michael would get. I had to have the extra phone because then two-year-old Bradley would insist on talking to Dad. We would be in the backyard, each of us on our own phone, talking to Michael. Our little boy babbled to his Dad in nonsense while Michael and I had an actual conversation over him. The rest of that deployment and the next are a blur. I was pretty much in survival mode the entire time, which is where the phone once again played a role. I would get panic attacks, bad ones, where I could barely breathe and definitely couldn’t talk. I would put the boys in the bathtub, sit on the floor next to them, and dial up my mom or one of my sisters. They knew if I didn’t respond after answering that I was having an attack and to just talk to me about daily life, something silly that happened, anything to get my mind back. They probably don’t even remember it, but those moments had a huge impact on me.”
Now, years later, Dawn’s husband is still serving in the AGR, and their family has continued to grow. They’ve moved 10 times in the last 20 years, now with four boys in tow. Their boys have changed schools eight times and will most likely switch once more before their dad retires. The impact of frequent moves on families like Dawn’s is a major concern; specifically for service members. In fact, over a third (36%) of active-duty service member respondents to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey report that “concerns about the impact of military life on my family” was a reason they would choose to leave military service, making it the most common reason. The moves, the deployments, the time apart; it’s all taught Dawn’s family, in particular, immeasurable resilience and strength. They’ve learned ways to make military life work for them and how to thrive—even in the most trying circumstances.
“We have learned that resilience is not passive, it is very active,” Dawn explained. “You have to make an effort to make it work for you. Sure, there are some kids that will look out for the new kid and welcome them in, but it is unfortunately rare. You have to be ready to stand out there and be part of the world. I know that my boys would not be as strong in their self-esteem had we not lived this life. Sure, they would have friends, but I wonder if they would have the presence of mind they have for the new kid, for that kid who looks lost, had they not been that kid themselves. Bouncing back takes energy and drive, and I feel that military kids are very good at that. I have grown so much as a person, too. I have fixed things that I didn’t know I could fix — I now know the inner workings of my vacuum, which is not something I ever wanted to know. I have handled many crises all while not letting on that there was anything to worry about back home. I’ve found resources like Blue Star Families to provide help and information when we need it. But the biggest lesson I have learned is to appreciate the time you do have together and how important that time is.”
At Blue Star Families, we know military life and the time spent apart can be hard. That’s why we want to help you make the most of the moments you’re together by creating opportunities to build connections. We’re here for you—whether you’re looking for activities to do with your kids while your service member is away, fun events to enjoy as a family while your service member is home, or ways to bridge the distance while your service member is overseas—we’ve got you covered.
Learn more about how Blue Star Families can help you create important memories through enriching programs and events at www.bluestarfam.org.