USA — Program Helps Guard, Reserve Couples Cope With Deployments

HOUSTON — Michelle Sum­mer­lin ducked out of a mas­sive con­fer­ence room filled with near­ly 2,000 Texas Army Nation­al Guard sol­diers, fam­i­lies and friends, and pulled up a chair close to her hus­band and their 3‑year-old son in a con­ven­tion cen­ter lob­by here.

Her son climbed into her lap, and Sum­mer­lin cud­dled him while recall­ing the par­ent­ing chal­lenges that arose, not while her hus­band was gone, but upon his return from Iraq. 

Sum­mer­lin said she grew accus­tomed to par­ent­ing solo while her hus­band, Army Staff Sgt. Luke Sum­mer­lin, was deployed in Iraq with the 72nd Infantry Brigade Com­bat Team over the past year. She cre­at­ed a “three strikes and you’re out” rule for her son as she took on the role of pri­ma­ry disciplinarian. 

Her hus­band returned in late July and imme­di­ate­ly took that role back. His style was more “one strike” than three, a rigid­i­ty that did­n’t mesh well with his wife’s more flex­i­ble approach. 

The argu­ments began. 

“At first I yelled at him a lot,” she said. “I’d cor­rect him more than I’d cor­rect my child.” Sum­mer­lin said she lat­er learned to bite her tongue, and to talk to her hus­band about how she felt behind closed doors. 

“Talk­ing is real­ly impor­tant,” she said. “It hard to live with some­one, and that’s what you’re doing after a deploy­ment, learn­ing to live togeth­er again.” 

The Sum­mer­lins trav­eled here from Groves, Texas, to attend a Yel­low Rib­bon Rein­te­gra­tion Pro­gram post-deploy­ment event to learn how to bet­ter han­dle tran­si­tion after a deploy­ment. The Defense Depart­ment pro­gram aims to equip Guard and Reserve mem­bers with the skills they need to suc­cess­ful­ly rein­te­grate with their fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties and jobs. 

The pro­gram fea­tures a series of events held through­out the deploy­ment cycle: one at the alert phase, one dur­ing the deploy­ment and three post-deploy­ment events at 30, 60 and 90 days after the servicemember’s return. The Sum­mer­lins were attend­ing the brigade’s 60-day event, Texas’ largest Yel­low Rib­bon event to date. 

Events focus on top­ics such as strength­en­ing rela­tion­ships, finan­cial man­age­ment, health and edu­ca­tion ben­e­fits, and stress and anger man­age­ment, Glenn F. Welling Jr., the program’s exec­u­tive direc­tor, said. 

“The deploy­ment expe­ri­ence will change you and it will change your fam­i­ly, your loved ones,” Welling said. “It’s a big deal. But when pre­pared for cor­rect­ly, the major­i­ty of stres­sors can be man­aged in such a way that new­found con­fi­dence skills, the abil­i­ty to react under stress and pres­sure, can be very pos­i­tive traits.” 

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a key theme at Yel­low Rib­bon events, where cou­ples learn how to forge new bonds and over­come obsta­cles that can quick­ly break down relationships. 

While Michelle Sum­mer­lin relayed her par­ent­ing chal­lenges, Army 1st Lt. Roy Zamo­ra, a resilience team mem­ber, was teach­ing a ses­sion on per­son­al­i­ty types at the same event, explain­ing how they can impact rela­tion­ships and communication. 

He likened per­son­al­i­ties to four col­ors — red, blue, yel­low and green — and had the audi­ence take a quiz to see what “col­or” they were. While the audi­ence filled out their respons­es, he joked about how he wore a red-checked shirt from his teen years to match the red of his profile. 

People’s per­son­al­i­ty dif­fer­ences some­times are the root of rela­tion­ship issues and argu­ments, he explained, and under­stand­ing those dif­fer­ences and know­ing the trig­gers that can set off con­flicts can help peo­ple to learn to work together. 

Zamo­ra offered up a per­son­al exam­ple. He said he’s often impa­tient with his wife –- a trait indica­tive of a “red”-type per­son­al­i­ty –- even when she’s just con­tem­plat­ing a fast-food order. Under­stand­ing her “green” per­son­al­i­ty type, specif­i­cal­ly her need to mull deci­sions over rather than mak­ing snap deci­sions, has helped him learn to be more patient. 

The ses­sion not only offers good infor­ma­tion, but serves as an ice­break­er, Zamo­ra said. “Peo­ple are laugh­ing and ask­ing ques­tions,” he said. “You hear things like, ’she’s blue, I’m red,’ all week­end long.” 

Even cou­ples sea­soned by years of ser­vice and mul­ti­ple deploy­ments can ben­e­fit from a refresh­er course in communication. 

Der­rick Thomas is a 21-year Army vet­er­an with sev­er­al deploy­ments under his belt, but when his wife, Army Cpl. Mele Thomas, first left for a year­long deploy­ment to Iraq with the 72nd IBCT, he got scared. 

Not so much for his wife, who he knew was a high­ly capa­ble sol­dier, but about tak­ing care of their 3‑year-old daugh­ter by himself. 

He was par­tic­u­lar­ly appre­hen­sive about doing his daughter’s hair. The first time he tried, it took him an ago­niz­ing 45 min­utes. But after a few months, he could whip it into a style in 10. 

“We got into a rou­tine,” he said. “I had to learn to be mom and dad.” 

Still, he found it dif­fi­cult to bal­ance his radi­ol­o­gy stud­ies with the demands of full-time par­ent­ing, and was relieved when his wife returned home in late sum­mer. In an effort to ace his finals and restore his good grades, he with­drew from his fam­i­ly to study. “Spend time with your daugh­ter,” he told his wife. 

But she had a much dif­fer­ent plan. Mele was look­ing to make up for lost time. 

“I felt I missed so much,” she said. “I want­ed to spend time with all three of us and just catch up with our lives.” 

“I drift­ed away and she kept pulling me back,” her hus­band added. “She want­ed me to be with her.” 

The cou­ple even­tu­al­ly reached a com­pro­mise. Mele became more for­giv­ing about her husband’s study demands and Thomas set his books aside more often to spend time with his family. 

It’s impor­tant for cou­ples to be able to artic­u­late to each oth­er what’s impor­tant to them and to learn the art of com­pro­mise, said Army Lt. Col. Cyn­thia Ras­mussen, psy­cho­log­i­cal direc­tor for the Army Reserve’s 88th Region­al Sup­port Com­mand and a Yel­low Rib­bon pre­sen­ter. Yel­low Rib­bon events lead peo­ple back to these basics of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, she added. 

These com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills can be tough for ser­vice­mem­bers who are return­ing from an envi­ron­ment where mis­sion focus is para­mount, and com­pro­mise can result in lost lives on the bat­tle­field, Ras­mussen said. But prob­lems can arise when troops are unable to turn that mis­sion focus off once out of the com­bat zone. 

“They’re used to get­ting things done, not sit­ting around and talk­ing about it,” Ras­mussen explained. At Yel­low Rib­bon events, she added, the coun­selors “teach ser­vice­mem­bers new com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills so they can learn how to han­dle var­i­ous situations.” 

Ser­vice­mem­bers who have issues with anger, for exam­ple, are taught to assess the sit­u­a­tion rather than spring­ing to a reac­tion, Ras­mussen said. 

“What you believe about a sit­u­a­tion is what leads to the response,” she said. “If some­one cuts you off in line and you think they’re being rude on pur­pose, you’ll get angry. But if you real­ize that maybe they’re just in a rush to pick up their kids or get home, then you won’t get as mad.” 

Army Staff Sgt. Christo­pher Clack, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ist who returned from Iraq in late July, said it helps to ease into the home­front rather than go in head­first and head­strong. The lead­er­ship skills so valu­able dur­ing deploy­ments may not be as appre­ci­at­ed by a spouse and kids who aren’t used to hav­ing orders barked at them. 

“We have to remem­ber they’re fam­i­ly, not sol­diers,” he said. 

Clack and his wife, Car­olyn, found it help­ful to devel­op a plan pri­or to his deploy­ment so they’d be on the same page for han­dling every­thing from finances to school choice. That plan relieved a lot of the stress and pre­vent­ed many argu­ments both dur­ing his deploy­ment and after his return, he said. 

“I knew not to go home and take over every­thing right away,” Clack said. “But it’s also a chal­lenge to sit back and let them do things.” 

His fam­i­ly suc­cess­ful­ly weath­ered life with­out him, so it would be unfair for him to just come in and try to take over, he said, even when there are dif­fer­ences of opinion. 

“I might look at things and think, ‘You should be doing this or not that,’ ” he said. “But they’ve been doing this the whole time I’ve been gone and it has been working.” 

The onus also is on the spous­es, his wife added. They should resist the temp­ta­tion to dump a year’s worth of stress and pres­sure on their servicemember. 

“Give your spouse time to adjust,” she advised. “Every­thing over­seas is on a sched­ule, so don’t make a ton of com­mit­ments when what they real­ly need is time to decom­press. Relax and give it time.” 

The cou­ple said they’re grate­ful the mil­i­tary has pro­grams like Yel­low Rib­bon for Guard and Reserve families. 

“I can remem­ber when fam­i­ly mem­bers did­n’t get much infor­ma­tion about what’s going on,” Clack said. “But since Yel­low Rib­bon, my wife gets e‑mails all of the time with updates and information.” 

Army Col. Mark Campsey, brigade com­man­der, stopped by the post-deploy­ment event here after attend­ing a sim­i­lar event in Dal­las. He sees mar­riages break up in his unit dur­ing and after deploy­ments, but much less so than ear­li­er in his career, he said. 

“We did­n’t talk to fam­i­lies then; we did­n’t have the mech­a­nism,” he said. But with Yel­low Rib­bon, “The gov­ern­ment has giv­en us a mech­a­nism to take care of people.” 

Yel­low Rib­bon is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for lead­ers to let ser­vice­mem­bers know they care about them, and also serves as an avenue of sup­port for the troops and their fam­i­lies, Campsey said. 

Spous­es can attend and meet their wife’s or husband’s bat­tle bud­dies they’ve heard about all year and get some insight into what their loved one expe­ri­enced dur­ing the deploy­ment. And ser­vice­mem­bers can get the help and sup­port they need with­out being high­light­ed for doing so. 

“The under­ly­ing mes­sage of Yel­low Rib­bon is, we care about our sol­diers and we care about their fam­i­lies,” Campsey said. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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