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.

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

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