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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