Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Supporting Our Soldiers' Families

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, more and more of us know someone who has been deployed or is currently deployed.

It can be hard to know how best to support and offer help to a family in your ward or neighborhood who are facing a deployment. What kind of service is appropriate to offer? What if they want to be left alone? What kinds of things would the family at home even want offered? What should you say? What should you not say?

When a close friend of mine had her husband deployed, I got a backseat view of the struggle she went through. I spoke with four of her friends whose husbands were deployed with the same group, and they shared many of their burdens with me.

Via e-mail, these five women sent me literally pages and pages of thoughts, feelings, and events, pouring out their souls. Reading through their experiences, I wept.

Before this, I'd thought I'd had some clue about how hard deployment was for my friend. I'd thought I had an inkling of what she was going through.

I didn't. Not even close. Reading through those e-mails was so powerful for me that I decided to write a novel about deployment and the families at home. It won't be out until spring 2010.

In the meantime, during the time of year that we celebrate the independence of our country and think about our freedoms, I felt it would be appropriate to list some ways you can help support a soldier's family at home . . . which can only help support that soldier in the field, wherever he or she may be.

Simply Keep an Eye Out.
Spouses of deployed soldiers don't want to become burdens on those around them, so they might not ask for help when they need it. Keep an eye out for things you can offer to do. If you notice the lawn getting a bit long, mow it (or send your teen over to do it). In the winter, shovel their driveway.

One wife said that even small gestures were very much appreciated, things that you might think are too small to bother with, like bringing the empty garbage can back from the curb.

Church meetings are a particular challenge for deployed families, because with the Church focus on families, they attend three hours with the hole in their hearts pointed out to them. Remember that small children especially tend to act up under stress. Since deployment is a huge stressor, small kids often misbehave during sacrament meetings, overwhelming the lone parent. Going over to help play with a child or take the baby out of their hands can be a huge help.

Try to notice those small moments where you can jump in and fill a need. One wife told me that those acts of service were the most appreciated.

The parent left at home has extra burdens placed on their shoulders. Offer to take the kids for an afternoon or evening so the parent can have time to themselves, especially to attend the temple. All five of the wives I spoke to said that temple attendance became a big foundation for their strength and ability to keep going.

Fill in for the Spouse
If the husband is the one deployed, look for things he used to do and find a way to get them done, whether you can do them yourself, your spouse can, or you can find a home teacher or someone else who has the skills. This can include things like fixing a garbage disposal, a hole in the fence, or a clogged toilet. If the wife is the one deployed, offer to bring in meals, do laundry, or fix children's clothing.

Ask what you can do to help, but also be sure to make specific offers. For example, if you're running to the grocery store, call to see if there's something you can pick up for the family while you're there.

When you don't know what you can do, or don't feel you have much of anything to offer for a family, pray for them and for their soldier. One army wife insisted that hearing about others praying for her family brought strength in ways nothing else could. She said that if you can do nothing else but pray, "you've done enough!"

What Not to Do
Every wife I spoke with insisted that any act of service, no matter how small, was received with large amounts of gratitude.

The one hard thing was when a specific service was offered . . . but then forgotten and never given. If you say you're going to do something for the family, do it. Don't make a promise if you can't fulfill it.

The kinds of service that fall through the cracks easiest are the ones where something has been promised on a regular basis, such as weekly. If you think you can't keep up that kind of service for the entire deployment (likely a year or more), don't offer it. Give what you can when you can, but don't set up an expectation and then disappoint the family; they're already going through enough stress.

Direct Support
Don't forget the soldiers themselves. You can send fun care packages to them, including personal favorite items (just ask the family what those are!). Some of the most welcome types of items in care packages are things you might not normally consider: inflatable pillows, granola bars, batteries, simple games (card games, dominoes, and dice), and other snack foods. Music CDs, disposable cameras, and long distance calling cards are also welcome. For more ideas, visit this site and others.

Many units also have newsletters you can subscribe to get updates on the soldiers and what they're up to, including promotions and good news that you can celebrate with the family at home.

What Not to Say
While having conversations with the spouse of a deployed solider is a good thing, there are definitely things to avoid. All of the wives I spoke with agreed that having someone who has never been through a deployment say they "understand" makes them frustrated. The other person can't understand unless they've been through it.

"I know what it's like; my husband travels a lot on business," is the most frequently quoted line of intended support that caused unintended hurt.

Yes, a husband may travel a lot, but he gets to fly in a safe jet and sleep in a warm, clean hotel room. He's not under enemy fire, sleeping in the desert, and covered with tick bites. The business trip husband may be AWAY a lot, but unlike a deployed soldier, he's not constantly in HARM'S way. There's a huge difference.

The wife of a business trip husband doesn't wake up every single day wondering if her doorbell will ring with two soldiers on the other side to tell her that her husband has been killed.

Also, don't compare deployment to being a single mom. While that is somewhat what these women expected, they quickly found out that deployment isn't like that. They had no idea how the worry and stress over communications and knowing if their soldier was okay would drain them, keep them awake at night, and how that stress could rub off on their children.

Another line that they don't like to hear is, "I couldn't do what you're doing; you're so strong."

But it's not a matter of being strong, one wife insisted. Deployment is a consequence of her husband's choices to serve his country. As a result, she has to get through this time. It's not a matter of how strong or weak she is. The situation just is, and she has to get through it, somehow.

What Should You Say?
Ask how they're doing. Talk about normal things that have nothing to do with deployment. Ask if you can help (even better, offer some specific help). Mention that you're praying for them. Most importantly, talk to them as if they're the same person they've always been, because they are.

Don't expect them to unload all their problems onto you. If they feel the need to share some of their problems, they will.

They need to know that they have a friend who genuinely cares, because even on their "good" days, one wife reminded me, "you're really not okay."