• October 23, 2016

Studying military families: Joy of reunion challenged by reality of everyday life

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Posted: Sunday, February 14, 2016 4:30 am

FORT HOOD — As Tarnisha Gibson waited near a Fort Hood parade field late Thursday night, the emotions she was feeling were familiar ones: excitement, anxiety and relief.

Moments later, Gibson’s husband and son — both soldiers who spent the last eight months in South Korea — walked off a bus and were quickly released into the waiting arms of Gibson, an Army spouse for the past 21 years.

“He’s been to Iraq, Afghanistan and twice to Korea,” Gibson said of her husband, Staff Sgt. Corwyn Gibson. It was the second deployment for her son, Spc. Bradley Gibson.

The Gibsons are one of the families being reunited after this nine-month deployment of 4,000 soldiers from Fort Hood to South Korea. As they are looking forward to time together, another 4,100 Fort Hood troops are heading to South Korea to take over the mission, separating more families for the next nine months.

Deployment is a way of life for many military families. Psychologists and communication experts have studied it, and say the challenges of deployments don’t stop with homecoming.

Families say that’s true. After the joy of reunion in the days and weeks after deployment, it’s back to reality, and reality has changed during the separation.

“It is quite difficult,” Tarnisha Gibson said. “Especially for us military spouses; we are so used to doing things our way while they are gone. And when they come back, it’s hard for the spouse to somewhat relinquish that control.”

The number of Fort Hood soldiers deployed around the world jumped to more than 7,400 in February, according to a Fort Hood document. That’s the highest it’s been since 2012, and officials said the spike is due to the rotation of troops heading to and coming from South Korea — part of a new Army plan that has, thus far, fallen largely on the shoulders of Fort Hood soldiers. Usually, the monthly number of deployed local troops hovers around 5,000.

Getting back to a new sense of normalcy is just one of many factors that comes with how deployments can impact married relationships in the military — an issue increasingly being studied by research firms and universities.

The study of deployments

Leanne Knobloch, a professor at the University of Illinois, has been studying how deployments can impact relationships since 2010. The studies started with seed money from the University of Illinois.

“We did some studies on kids, and did some studies on romantic couples, and then that was enough to get the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense,” said Knobloch, 42, a communications professor who teaches relationship courses at the university.

The Defense Department provided Knobloch’s research team with an $840,000 grant in 2014.

“That opened huge doors for us,” said Knobloch, adding her research staff grew from three to nearly 20, thanks mostly to the DOD grant. Most of the studies have been done through online surveys; and filled out by returning service members and their spouses.

The university’s current study looks at 250 military families during the first eight months after the deployment.

“That study is in the field right now,” Knobloch said. “And so, we have our sample; they’re just working through the last couple of months of the eighth wave.”

Military couples can grapple with a lot of questions after a deployment, Knobloch said. “How committed are we to this relationship? What happened during deployment? How do we move forward? How do we rekindle our bonds? Is this the same person that I fell in love with?”

The challenges of the deployment and reintegration can affect each member of the family differently.

The at-home spouses may have to find ways to let go of running the household by themselves.

The soldier may feel like a stranger in his or her own home, and is wondering how to fit in again.

A child may be worrying about future deployments, or be confused with new rules in place now that the military parent is back home.

“The family gets used to eating chips in front of the TV, or whatever they fall into. Then, the other person comes home, and it’s hard to adjust,” Knobloch said.

The aim of the studies is to improve or develop new programs that can help military families deal with deployments in the future.

“We want to make sure that military couples and families are sort of prepared for the hidden stressors of those months (following a deployment).” Knobloch said. “Our work suggests that if couples and families can be aware of some of those hidden stressors, as they are entering into the reintegration phase ... they can work towards troubleshooting some of those stressors and have a more successful reintegration.”

Challenges of deployments

Michael and Anne Jackson, a retired Air Force couple now living in Belton, understand the challenges that come with deployments all too well.

Lt. Col. Michael Jackson, a former B-1 bomber pilot, retired from the Air Force out of Fort Hood in 2014, after a 22-year career that included three deployments.

The first came in 2002, just months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Jackson and other B-1 crew members deployed from Dyess Air Force Base in West Texas to Oman, where they staged continuous bombing missions in Afghanistan.

“Back then, this was our Super Bowl,” Jackson said.

His wife, however, didn’t think of it the same way.

“I have a 2-year-old and a 2-week-old, and my husband won’t be home,” said Anne Jackson. “I was afraid the whole time.”

It lasted about four months, but that was enough to give Anne Jackson “some lingering resentment and fear” about future deployments.

The next one came in July 2008, again to Afghanistan.

“This time I was on the ground with the Army,” Michael Jackson said. His first day in the country followed an attack that killed several American service members.

“Everything got a lot more real,” he said. “My sense of vulnerability went up.”

The situation didn’t bode well for Anne Jackson, who years earlier as a young Air Force spouse, never expected her husband to be deployed so close to the front lines and for so long.

“I felt like I hadn’t signed up for that,” she said.

While Michael Jackson did his part to coordinate air attacks in war-torn Afghanistan, life went on at the family’s home in Belton.

The water heater flooded part of the house.

The garbage disposal broke.

Anne Jackson continued to raise the couple’s three sons while working as an attorney.

“There was a point in October (2008) when I started to cry and couldn’t stop,” she said.

When the deployment ended in 2009, the family had another joyful homecoming, but the reintegration challenges soon settled in.


“You get back here, and it’s just chaos everywhere,” said Michael Jackson, referring to the stark contrast between home life and a military deployment, where everything is structured and the days can seem repetitive.

He didn’t adjust well, and was later diagnosed with combat-related anxiety and depression.

“He withdrew,” Anne Jackson said. “He would sit and watch TV.”

The third deployment came 18 months later — this time to Iraq with a Special Forces unit.

Michael Jackson called home every night, but still missed the life events that continued back home.

His wife broke her wrist while riding a bicycle.

The toilet overflowed on New Year’s Eve.

The family dog died.

The boys continued to grow up while their father was away.

After the deployment, Anne Jackson saw the signs of her husband’s anxiety and depression becoming worse. And, as a prosecutor in Bell County, she began to notice a correlation between the domestic cases she handled and her own household.

It was a wake-up call.

She read a book, “Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior,” and did other research to understand what was going on with her husband.

“When Michael returned from deployments, we were all happy; but within weeks, we were all struggling,” Anne Jackson said. “This eventually led me to really watch Michael’s behavior to try and see what was going on — what the disconnect was.”

The effort led to counseling and eventually healing, yet the couple still say they struggle at times.

Today, the retired Air Force officer picks his boys up from school, coaches football, helps them with homework and recently, has started going to the grocery store and cooking meals.

The Jacksons are open with what they have gone through and share their deployment stories with others — something they say helps their own relationship. Last summer, they both spoke at a veterans conference in Washington, D.C.

“It’s hard to remember life before deployments,” Anne Jackson said.

Bad timing

Some deployments seem to come at the worst possible time for families. And they come too often.

Sarah MacLeod, a 32-year-old Army wife and mother who runs her own business, found out last week that she is pregnant with twins. She and husband Ian MacLeod, a staff sergeant with Fort Hood’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment, also have a 3-year-old son, Declen.

But what should be a joyful time of celebration, after trying for a year to get pregnant again, has been tainted by the sense that time is running out.

MacLeod’s husband is scheduled to deploy in June for nine months. The babies are due in October.

“I’m going to have twins and a 3-year-old. That’s on me. Plus my business,” Sarah MacLeod said. “It’s scary. It’s scary, the situation we’re in.”

But it’s not unfamiliar.

The MacLeods began their romantic relationship with a deployment, when the longtime friends connected while Ian was home on a two-week R&R, midway through a 15-month deployment to Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008.

The couple married in May 2008, followed by two more deployments to Afghanistan, a yearlong deployment from 2010 to 2011, then another from June 2014 to February 2015.

The readjustment process gets easier after each deployment, Sarah Mac-Leod said. Life, however, does not get put on pause.

Ian MacLeod is currently on a monthlong rotation to the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., where he was when his wife found out she was pregnant with twins.

Between deployments two and three, the Mac-Leods welcomed their son Declen into the family.

The baby Ian left behind during his last deployment turned into a toddler by the time he came home, adding a whole new layer to the couple’s readjustment process.

“It’s hard because (Ian) gets off that plane and he’s so excited to be home, but he’s met with a child who’s nine months older, that’s picked up habits, and (Ian) has to readjust. If you can’t communicate during that readjustment, then that’s where the stress comes in,” Sarah MacLeod said.

Despite the challenges, deployments have, overall, strengthened the couple’s marriage. The good days outweigh the bad, Sarah said. “When they say that distance makes the heart grow fonder, it really does. It makes you value the time that you do have together.”

But maintaining a healthy relationship does not come without hard work. The MacLeods make a point to talk every day when Ian is deployed, and have also sought out counseling, both individually and as a couple, to process the challenges of a fast-paced military life.

“It’s tough, but I can guarantee you if you have a hole in your marriage, reintegration is a whole lot worse than (for) Ian and I. We know when to seek out help. ... In our marriage, we both make the effort. Our marriage is bigger than the Army,” Sarah MacLeod said.

Back to the homecoming

Standing along the Fort Hood parade field late Thursday night as her husband and son were ending another deployment, Gibson said she felt another emotion that she hadn’t on previous deployments: peacefulness.

Perhaps that was from the experience of knowing another deployment has come to an end. Or perhaps, it’s from the hope that this deployment could be the last. Her husband is scheduled to retire in a year, and her son is getting out of the Army in November.

“Hopefully, we’re done (with deployments),” she said.

An Army family’s resources during or after deployments include:

  • Military One Source: A 24-hour, seven-day-a-week source of information and assistance for military families. It can be reached by phone, 1-800-342-9647 or online at www.militaryonesource.com.
  • A Fort Hood chaplain can be reached any time by calling: 254-287-CHAP (2427).
  • Fort Hood and its units also have military family life consultants available. Call 254-553-4705 for an appointment.
  • Fort Hood units also have a family readiness group, or FRG, attached to it. A FRG is an organization of family members, volunteers, soldiers and civilian employees belonging to an Army command. They provide support, assistance and a network of information among its members, the unit and community agencies. Unit FRGs consist of soldiers, their spouses, children, extended families, fiancés, boyfriends or girlfriends, retirees and others,
  • Source: Army and Fort Hood

Want to be part of a study on deployments?

The details: A research team at University of Illinois is conducting an online survey study about the experiences of military couples in the first seven days after deployment. The team has done several studies on deployments, involving more than 1,200 participants living in 37 states. The results will provide important information to help support military couples during future deployments and reunions, according to the researchers. To be eligible, participants must enroll within the first seven days of the homecoming. To entice families to partake in the survey, the university is offering each person who completes it a $15 Amazon e-gift card.

How to sign up: Send an email to military.family.research@gmail.com. Include your name, partner’s name, email addresses for both and the anticipated date of the service member’s return home.

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