Programs help families touched by war
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Army News Service, May 19, 2005) -- Capt. Chris Connors and his wife, Delana, were trying to conceive a baby. They each had children from prior marriages, but hoped for one together. The big joke between the two of them was that as soon as she found out she was pregnant, he would get deployment orders.
The laughter stopped when she got pregnant ... and he got orders.
When Delana was four months pregnant, Connors left for training and arrived in Iraq on Christmas Day. He hopes to come home on leave when the baby is born.
"Chris is my best friend," Delana said. "I miss his presence. I always tell him that a bad day with him is better than a million good ones away."
The laughter stopped when she got pregnant ... and he got orders
The Connors are just one of the thousands of families touched by war, and the pain of sometimes unlimited separations.
"As the real-world tempo increases, so do the number of deployments and level of stress," said Chere Harper, Fort Sam Houston mobilization and deployment readiness manager for Army Community Service. "The families left behind are deeply affected by these separations."
In recent years, the Army has stepped up its efforts to ease their pain with a host of outreach programs. ACS, for instance, offers video-teleconferences linking Soldiers and their families worldwide, a variety of educational classes for children and adults and training to jump start Family Readiness Groups.
Even more far reaching is Military OneSource, a Department of Defense-level Web site and round-the-clock phone center, where an extensive amount of military-related information is gathered into one database.
"Military OneSource is a great source of help," Harper said. "It's there to answer those burning questions that come up at 2 a.m., and has a huge database of information to respond to everything from child-care questions to how to get a new ID card."
The questions always seem to increase as family members confront unfamiliar situations, such as handling finances or firing up the lawnmower.
"Things always seem to happen right after he leaves," said Melissa Cruz, whose husband Carlos, deployed to Kuwait in December. "The toilet overflowed the day he left for basic training and leaked down three floors. I had no clue what to do."
Now, Melissa said, Carlos calls just about every day to answer Melissa's questions, everything from when the oil change is due to bill payment reminders.
This type of communication is vital to a successful separation, Harper said. However, "ideally, families are setting the groundwork before the deployment - the sooner, the better."
Besides taking on extra household and parenting responsibilities, spouses also deal with a wide range of emotions ranging from initial anger and sadness to worry and fear, Harper said.
"The best thing you can do is to find a routine that works and stick with it," Harper said. "The day-to-day regularity is comforting and familiar. Also, try not to become dependent on the nightly news. You don't need daily stressful reminders of the dangers."
ACS has checklists and pamphlets for every age group and topic imaginable with additional tips for dealing with deployments. But however available the assistance, the divide between the head and the heart can seem insurmountable, Harper said.
"We may understand the coping mechanisms, but that doesn't always help," she said. "Children have a particularly tough time because they have the same issues as adults but haven't developed the same coping mechanisms."
Edwin Sierra has seen the affects of separation firsthand with his daughter, Tatiana, even though she's just 22 months old. His wife, Haydee, deployed to Iraq in March.
"My wife and daughter are extremely close," said Sierra. "It's been tough on both of them. My wife sent a video for us, and my daughter tried to grab her through the screen, then realized it wasn't really her. She fell on the floor and started to cry."
Sierra said, although heart wrenching, he feels it's important to keep the image of his wife present for Tatiana.
"I don't want her to forget her mother," he said. "I show her pictures all the time, and I just bought a computer camera so we can see each other."
Through pictures, e-mails and phone conversations, Harper said people can reach the ultimate goal, which is for relationships to remain solid during the separation.
"This is vital for young children," she said. "You don't want to hand a child back to a parent and have the child become hysterical because she thinks it's a stranger. Show pictures and talk about the parent all the time."
These reminders are just as important for school-age children.
"I keep a priority mail envelope on the kitchen table for my son, Jonathan," said Delana. "He draws pictures and writes letters, and whenever he feels like putting something in there, he does. I send it when it's full and buy another envelope so we can start over."
Seemingly small gestures can have a big impact at the homecoming, Harper said.
"I was at a unit homecoming ceremony," she said. "There was a big crowd of families waiting for their loved ones. A 2-year-old, who was just an infant when her father left, ran into the sea of desert uniforms and grabbed her dad's legs. That's what needs to happen."
Harper said it's also important to ask for help when needed.
"The communication between a Soldier and family is every bit as important as the communication between the family and other avenues of assistance."
For more information, visit the Military OneSource Web site at http://www.militaryonesource.com or call (800) 342-9647.
(Editor's note: Elaine Wilson serves with the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office. She said Delana gave birth to a 6-pound, 6-ounce boy named Noah April 26. Due to mission requirements, her husband wasn't able to take leave for the birth.)