Army Spouse Shares Deployment Tips
By Lee McMahon
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, July 15, 2010 Plastic sheet protectors for documents, a frank discussion ahead of time and an 8x10 photo taped to the car seat -- these are a few of the tips Army spouse and mother Rebekah Sanderlin has come up with to help cope with family separations after more than a half-dozen deployments.
First: the sheet protectors.
“It is absolutely essential that the spouse at home has all the important documents in one, easy to find, place,” the 28-year-old mother of two said during an interview with the Defense Media Activity.
Sanderlin points to plastic sheet protectors for documents and a three-ring binder as her go-to resource for birth certificates, Social Security cards, shot records, Defense Eligibility Enrollment Reporting System enrollment forms, physical forms, her marriage license, and photo copies of passports, driver’s licenses and military ID cards.
Another tip she recommends: start planning early.
“Several months before the deployment” Sanderlin said, “the servicemember-spouse should begin transitioning chores over to the at-home spouse. She [or he] will be the one doing everything and it’s best that all the kinks get worked out ahead of time.”
It does not hurt to try to be a mind-reader either, she noted.
“Try to foresee possible problems,” Sanderlin said. “I think it would be helpful for soldiers to pass a list around where they could give the names and numbers of plumbers, electricians, and handy men that they have had good experiences with. When it’s the middle of winter and the wife comes home late at night to find burst pipes, she’s not going to have time to check the references on a plumber.”
While no military family wants to talk about it, Sanderlin recommends not putting off the uncomfortable discussions. Like those around planning a spouse’s final wishes.
“Do not write that you want Guns N’ Roses played at your funeral unless you really, truly, do. I’ve seen exactly that happen and it is not pleasant,” she said.
“My advice is for the military couple to do this packet together; that way the spouse already knows all the wishes. My husband and I managed to lighten the mood on this a bit by discussing my wishes at the same time. That made the conversation a little less awkward. We also discussed what we would want to happen to our children in the event of both of our deaths,” she said.
When it comes to children, Sanderlin said, it is all about advance planning.
“If you have kids, try to think about the deployment from their perspective,” she said. “What events will the deployed parent miss? Can you celebrate those or make accommodations before hand? We have had years where my son has had two birthdays – one way in advance, so that his dad could be there.”
Sanderlin gave birth to both her son and her daughter shortly before two separate deployments. That doesn’t mean her husband returned home as a stranger, though.
“Another thing I did with both of my children when they were infants was to enlarge a picture of my husband to 8 x10 size, basically a headshot, and put it in a sheet protector that I taped to the seat of the car,” she explained. “That way, every time we were in the car they were looking at him. It worked! When he came home our kids instantly recognized him!”
There also are finances to consider, Sanderlin said. Whether one or both spouses manage the family finances when together, she said, it is a different situation during deployments.
“As for being organized, set a budget,” she recommended. “Look at your normal monthly expenses and use that as a guide. The spouse at home will spend more money during a deployment. Expect it, accept it, and budget for it. If you create a new deployment budget - and stick with it - you can still save a lot of that extra money.”
On a lighter note, Sanderlin said she has also “learned that deployments can be a great time to lose weight because I have more time to exercise and don’t have to worry about cooking the foods my husband likes.”
Overall, a military spouse’s deployment is a difficult situation to understand unless you have experienced one, said Sanderlin.
“I don’t think soldiers, for the most part, really get what a deployment is like for the family,” she said. “When we give you that last hug before you leave, we are thinking that it might be the last time we ever see you alive. As casualties begin to occur during the deployment, we constantly wonder if you will be the next one.
“We freak out every time a strange car slows down on our street or an unexpected guest knocks on our door,” Sanderlin continued. “It never gets easy, but all of these feelings are even stronger for young spouses or spouses enduring a deployment for the first time. There’s nothing a soldier can do about any of this except to be aware and be sensitive.”
With that in mind, she said, deployed troops should not tell their spouses about their near-death experiences.
“When you call home, do not tell your spouse about how you almost hit an IED or got shot at,” Sanderlin advised. Such “what ifs,” she said, will upset an already-anxious spouse.
“Try to imagine how you’d feel if she told you someone in the neighborhood was trying to kill her and you were helpless to prevent it,” Sanderlin said. “In many ways, ignorance can be bliss.”
Deployments put huge stresses on military families, Sanderlin acknowledged, adding, there is “just no avoiding it.”
“Do not lose sight of the big picture. What really matters is that you come home, safe and sound, to an intact family,” she said. “Keep your eye on that prize and make sure that all the choices you make help you get to that goal.”
While such tips may be similar or the same, every military family is different, Sanderlin said.
“What works best, in my opinion, is for the spouse at home to look at her personality, her lifestyle and her responsibilities and make the best decision she can,” Sanderlin said. “There are no awards given to spouses and no one will think higher of her for enduring more than she can handle, especially if the price of that endurance is her own sanity.”
And, after years of deployment separation experience, Sanderlin has perceived one constant.
“Deployments suck, that’s the main lesson and it has not changed from the first deployment to the most recent one, but there are some life lessons that I would not have learned without having my husband deployed,” she said. “I am definitely a much-stronger person because of what I have endured and my confidence soars with each deployment.
“I also know that when the history of this war is written, I – and all the people reading this – will have done more than my part to help our nation and the world.”
(Editor’s Note: Sanderlin writes the “Operation Marriage” blog for The Fayetteville Observer. You can read her latest entries at: http://blogs.fayobserver.com/operationmarriage.)