After eight months in Afghanistan, our son is on his way home. He’s not back yet—the Army’s bizarre way of sending returning soldiers through a maze of flights, bases, delays and last minute changes has kept his itinerary tenuous even as it’s kept us on edge—but he’ll be here shortly. Our family can breathe again.
Not everyone who deployed with our son is coming back. Two brave young men he served with lost their lives. One leaves behind a wife and young child. The other, an extended family and community. Their deaths make their unit’s homecoming bittersweet. All of us who look forward to our children returning safely do so with a profound sense of gratitude while at the same time grieving with the families who suffered loss. It could have been our children who died.
Sometime within the next few days we’ll be reunited. Just seeing him after our lengthy separation will be incredible. I warned him some time ago that I’ll cry like a little girl. His mother will certainly squeeze him tight enough to shoot his blood pressure through the roof. He said that would be fine with him. And that’s just us. The greater homecoming will be with his new wife. They’d been married for just a few months when he deployed. It’ll be like a second honeymoon for them when he comes home.
I can’t wait to hear the full account of the cryptic conversations we’ve had through the months. Brief conversations via Facetime and emails aren’t able to communicate as much as my wife and I wanted to know at the time. The down side of knowing more is that during the next deployment we’ll have more to worry about. We’ll take that risk. Having your child so far away for so long is one thing; having little information about what they’re really doing is something far more intense. My wife and I will feel much more comfortable knowing what our son actually was involved in.
As I’ve tried to sort through all the feelings and experiences of the last few months, I’ve come to several conclusions about what keeps families going through a child’s military deployment. All families are different, of course, and they respond to their children’s military service according to a variety of values, beliefs and convictions. Some families have deep spiritual convictions; some have none; and many are somewhere in between. Some are deeply involved in the lives of their children while others are more disconnected. Some are more prone to anxiety than others. Some are so ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan that they have mixed feelings about their children serving there at all. But I think a few broad principles connect with most.
So here are four keys I’ve learned to help families get through their child’s deployment:
- Pray for them. Pray by yourself. Pray with your spouse. Pray with your other children. Ask the people in your extended family to pray. Enlist the prayers of your church. Do whatever you can to get people to remember your child in prayer. I’m a preacher and believe in the power of prayer—I’ve seen God’s miraculous response too many times to doubt how powerful it is. My family and I prayed consistently and passionately for our son’s safety. In fact, that was our main way of responding to the stresses of his deployment. We’d have been lost without prayer. If you haven’t been a praying person for whatever reason, the opportunity to become one will never be easier than when you send your child off to war.
- Use every means possible to stay connected with your child. Emails. Phone calls. Facetime. Regular mail. Take advantage of all of them. We have to bear in mind (and this is a hard lesson to learn) that the military on deployment are incredibly busy and often don’t have the time or energy to communicate like we’d like for them to. So parents usually reach out to our children more often than they’re able to reach out to us. But they read it all and appreciate it all. So use all the technologies available to stay in touch. Also stay in touch with your child’s military unit. All units have Facebook pages and other channels of communication. Take the time to keep up with them.
- Talk about your child’s deployment with your friends. Include them in this season of your life. If your friends are in your church, so much the better. Nothing so helps us get through a deployment as those people we’re connected with in a faith community. But there are two caveats. One, you can’t betray any confidences your child places in you. There are things he or she will tell you that you shouldn’t tell anyone else. The second is that you don’t want to take advantage of your friends. Every conversation shouldn’t revolve around what’s going on with your child or how you’re feeling through their deployment. But an essential part of friendship is when friends open their hearts to each other. So allow your friendship with others to grow through the time of your child’s deployment.
- Understand and accept how deployment often brings profound changes. I’m not talking about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder—a real experience that usually requires professional care—but other kinds of changes. The kind that happen when someone is under intense pressure for lengthy periods of time. Or when friends are killed in battle. Or when the accustomed routine of life is replaced by immersion into an environment of danger, unpredictability and brutality. War changes people. And often as we talk with our children through the time of their deployment we can detect the change happening, even if they themselves don’t recognize it. Families are the front line of dealing with that kind of change, and we have to be prepared for it.
Families can and do prosper during deployment. They grow deeper spiritually. They connect more authentically with one another. They learn the values of prayer and faith. Our son’s deployment has done all of that for us, and we’re blessed people because of it. His homecoming will be a blessed event.