Last January, when Brandon Aldrich held his youngest daughter for the first time, it was the happiest and saddest moment of his life.
The Fort Gordon sergeant witnessed the birth of his second child through a sketchy Skype connection, 13 time zones and 6,785 miles away at an outpost in South Korea.
When Aldrich returned, Molly was 10 months old and he had missed many of her milestones, including her first tooth, her first word and the first time she sat up on her own.
Aldrich made it home three weeks before Molly started walking. Five seconds into holding her, she cried for her mother.
“I was playing catch-up,” said Aldrich, who tried to familiarize his daughter with his voice and appearance through regular video chats. “She knew my face, but she had no idea who I was at first. It was extremely hard to swallow.”
For a year at a time, soldiers such as Aldrich navigate minefields and duck bullets, endure tedium inside barbed-wired outposts and hold together long-distance relationships from remote locations in East Asia. And going home doesn’t necessarily mean everything is now OK.
Once soldiers arrive home, military data show that traffic accidents, alcohol abuse, drug addiction and failed marriages typically rise. Three to six months later, as the joy of return subsides, deep-seated emotional or psychological problems can begin to show.
Soldiers must reconnect with children, adjust to more independent spouses and dial back the hypervigilance that served them in combat. To ease the transition, Fort Gordon offers counseling, high-adventure trips and “strong bond” events to reach families affected by post-traumatic stress.
The problem, though, is sometimes soldiers’ pride keeps them from reaching out. Since 2009, divorce among military couples has increased 31 percent, suicide rates have soared to an all-time high of 3.5 percent and more than 4,420 veterans have died in noncombat motor vehicle crashes, according to the Department of Defense.
“What we do is extremely difficult, and there certainly are casualties of that,” said Lt. Col. Mark E. Thompson, the chaplain for the 35th Signal Brigade at Fort Gordon. “Each family does not have a happy ending.”
Thompson described reintegration as an “ongoing struggle,” with Army posts around the world employing a wide range of services to save a soldier after he returns.
Many events are scheduled during the day, at a time when spouses and children can’t get away from work and school, said Capt. Chris Weinrich, the chaplain for the 447th Signal Battalion at Fort Gordon.
“We live in a busy society and … that is OK,” he said. “Even if everyone cannot come to every event, chaplains are constantly reaching out through personal visits and social media pages to make sure everyone is accounted for and overall morale remains high.”
Among the more popular programs at Fort Gordon, Weinrich said, is Warrior Adventure Quest, in which units whitewater raft, repel and play paintball together to mimic the rush they experienced overseas and blow off any pent-up aggression they might have brought home.
The Aldrich family relies more on building trust by using social media and one-on-one talks to stay in close communication before, during and after deployment.
The approach is at the core of the strong bond events Thompson coordinates in cities across the Southeast to help families learn how to cope with deployment, including the return. The skills taught include managing a healthy diet, dropping the vulgar language picked up during war and not undermining the value of their spouses and children, who took on new routines and made major life decisions while soldiers were away.
“Momma’s been in charge of everything for the past year,” Thompson said. “You cannot walk in and start demanding things.”
Thompson said soldiers play an equal role in the transition process and must realize they need to continue to let the spouse manage the household.
Aldrich had experience in coming home to a child when he returned the second time. Aldrich first deployed in 2009 to the Middle East, when his oldest child, Shay, was 4.
“You become two separate people,” his wife, Laura Hardy Aldrich, said of the deployments. “While overseas, he was concerned about the safety of his unit, while I was in full-time mommy mode. It’s hard to break free from that mind-set.”
She said her husband tried to make up for lost time immediately, making “no complaints” and being cautious not to “overstep his boundaries.” He took on small tasks at first, such as doing household chores, paying the bills and cooking meals. Then, he graduated into restoring the romance with his wife and taking a more involved role in the children’s lives.
“I took it one step at a time,” Brandon Aldrich said. “I did not rush into anything.”
Two days after coming home the second time, the Skype sessions finally set in and Molly was “daddy’s little girl.” Brandon had learned her cries – high-pitched meant she was uncomfortable and whining was code for tired – and Molly clung to her father.
The family said the process took an “open mind, some patience and a good sense of humor.”
“It’s very easy for families to fall apart,” Laura Aldrich said. “Get help. Go on dates.”
Thompson said each soldier is provided with 12 free visits to a clinical psychiatrist of his or her choice through the underused Military One Source program. The chaplain said that while the service will not eliminate all anxiety, it can go a long way in preventing “some pretty serious consequences.”
“We always try to let people understand there is nothing wrong with asking for help, because nobody that deploys doesn’t change,” Thompson said. “Everybody is affected. Everybody comes back different.”