Once a bonding experience Shelby Menard shared with her father, the video game Call of Duty became all too real for the Waynesboro, Ga., teen in 2003.
When Sgt. 1st Class Jamie Menard deployed from Fort Gordon to Kuwait, his 11-year-old daughter went through mild depression, started eating less and eventually lost interest in the digital world of modern warfare.
Shelby was not alone in her stress. The entire Menard family, which has endured four deployments in 10 years, became afraid, worried that officers would come to their house bearing unwanted news about their father, husband and son.
“It is much different when you are a child and a parent deploys at the snap of a finger,” said Shelby, now 21. “You grow accustomed to them being around every day. When they leave, the time apart and the uncertainty of their return, can feel like forever.”
The work of war is a family affair. Nearly six in 10 of the troops deployed today are married, and nearly half have children. Those families – more than a million of them since 2001 – have borne the brunt of the psychological and emotional strain of deployments.
In 2009, social scientists began documenting the rippling effects of multiple combat deployments on families. The findings, published by the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics, were no surprise to military families.
Siblings and grandparents become surrogate parents. Spouses struggle with loneliness and stress. Children feel confused and abandoned during extended separations. All are more likely to report mental health problems – including depression, anxiety and sleep
disorders – the longer deployments last.
“The goodbyes never get easier,” said wife and mother Heather Menard. “It is hard, and it takes several weeks to adjust.”
She said what clinical studies fail to show are the ways, often imperceptible to outsiders, in which families cope. Military families say pre- and post-deployment briefings provide little to no assistance in preparing for the challenges they will face in times of war and peace, and that family readiness groups are “useless” and “ineffective.”
Many families say they must band together to make it through the seven phases of war: train-up, mobilization, deployment, employment, redeployment, post-deployment and reconstitution.
The first time Jamie Menard returned to the U.S., he was escorted home in a white military van on Christmas Eve 2004. His wife stood on the front porch of their Waynesboro home and asked, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Heather thought her husband had died in combat.
“I had no e-mail, no phone calls, nothing,” she said. “It was very difficult to go from your lowest low to your highest high.”
Thomas Fitzpatrick, Fort Gordon’s director of plans, training, mobilization and security, said that is how the transition process once went. Before 2007, Army generals were encouraged but not required to give advanced notice of when their troops would be leaving or coming home.
Now, Fitzpatrick said, the Defense Department requires 30 days’ notice for returning troops and up to a year of notice before they leave the United States. Fort Gordon assigns as many as 20 financial advisers and family-life consultants to each unit – some joining troops overseas – and conducts weeklong academies known as Master Resiliency Training.
The services, offered in conjunction with the mandatory counseling and examinations soldiers complete before and after deployment, coaches families on how to cope while their loved ones are away.
“At each part of the seven phases, there are different activities going on to prepare soldiers and their families for when units are away and also when they are no longer in a combat zone but back in Fort Gordon USA,” Fitzpatrick said.
Adjusting to deployment can take up to two years, Fitzpatrick estimates, with the most rigorous part coming as soldiers leave for war.
Heather Menard said her Family Readiness Group provided no travel or lodging reimbursement to say goodbye to Jamie or advice on how to balance the family budget in her husband’s absence.
Though soldiers receive higher pay during combat, it does not compensate for the slew of paperwork families have to file to get a lower interest rate on debt, switch their medical coverage from TRICARE to Veterans Affairs and receive professional care for post-traumatic stress.
The Menards said they pretty much were on their own and if not for Heather’s parents, Ellie and Joe Hessek, who live next door, the family might have had a hard time handling deployment.
Joe Hessek grew close to Jamie. Ellie Hessek became a “sounding board” for her daughter. And the two together provided everyday therapy for the couple, helping them understand each other’s fears and needs, especially after Jamie’s second deployment to Iraq, when he fell hard into post-traumatic stress.
When he returned from Iraq in November 2007, Jamie Menard had difficulty talking about the horrors he had seen, which Heather said was hard to accept for a family that “never leaves things unfinished.”
“I felt like I was out of place and that I was not worthy for my family to be waiting on me and accepting me back in their set routine,” Jamie Menard said. “I had to learn to communicate differently.”
Capt. Richard Hill, the chaplain of Fort Gordon’s 551st Signal Battalion, said it is normal for soldiers to feel like strangers in their home after deployment and that he rarely sees post-traumatic stress that is diagnosed as a disorder.
“Every soldier has post-traumatic stress and, for most, it is healthy,” Hill said. “They are returning from an environment where people were shooting at them. It helps to be aware and look over your shoulder because that’s what’s kept you alive.”
The Menards said it took months of prayer and family support before Jamie’s nerves were soothed.
“It does not get any easier,” Ellie Hessek said. “All you can do is grow to accept the process.”