Relationship, Money Issues Face Some Returning Combatants
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 13, 2004 Money, intimacy and re-establishing their relationship as a couple and with their children are some of the challenging issues facing families when servicemembers return after months away on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
A team of mental health professionals from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences' Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress has been looking at these issues through interviews and site visits to Defense Department communities as part of a health education campaign, "Courage to Care."
How spouses spent combat pay was raised as a major concern of returning combatants during a telephone interview, according to Air Force Dr. (Col.) Molly Hall of the psychiatry department at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. Spouses said servicemembers wanted to know how they had spent the combat pay they earned on the battlefield, Hall noted.
Center team member Dr. Nancy Vineburgh, visited Fort Polk, La., and sat in on a reintegration class for spouses and soldiers recently returned from Iraq. About 75 percent of the servicemember attendees brought their spouses with them. The topic came up in an interactive exercise in which two servicemen without spouses role-played a couple discussing an important issue.
"What have you done with my money? You spent it on the house? I wanted a car!" said one serviceman to the other. Vineburgh, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the university, said such an issue becomes part of a larger picture of re-establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect.
She said a money issue such as the wife buying new living room furniture while the soldier may have wanted a new car could cause a lot of friction in the relationship. One wife said she was able to save a lot of money while her husband was fighting a war, "but some people didn't," according to Vineburgh.
She said the purpose of the reintegration class was to discuss the challenges of getting back into the family life and reconnecting with their spouses. The facilitators included an Army chaplain and several family advocacy representatives, including health care providers and community services staff.
Hall noted that other big issues voiced by returning war veterans centered on the tremendous transition from the regimented intense routine of war back into an environment that's quiet and safe.
"It's a transition back to life in the states with the family and all the demands that suddenly spouses and children present," Hall pointed out. "Life is actually in some ways more ambiguous, less structured and less clear here as opposed to life in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The colonel noted that normally, people don't immediately think about potential problems associated with transitioning back into the family after being in combat.
"You kind of key on, 'It's wonderful to be back together again the first day,'" she said. "But, about a week out, all of a sudden, you might have an issue where parents coming back encounter a family structure that's become very self-sufficient in that member's absence.
"Maybe the discipline has changed; maybe the roles have changed," Hall continued. "So there has to be kind of a reassembly of the unit together."
"We tend to romanticize when we're not together," Vineburgh said. "Things suddenly seem more important or more special than they might have been."
Another problem arises when the spouse returns to the work force during the military member's absence, which leads to more independent feelings, the colonel said. "Whereas, before the member left, they may have been functioning more in a traditional homemaker role," she continued. "Now that they've branched out, that's an issue that perhaps needs to be discussed and negotiated."
While the servicemember is off fighting a war, the parent left alone with children might have different disciplinary styles, different bedtimes and different ideas of what children can and can't do, Hall said.
When the combatant returns home with different ways of doing things, the child might rebel and say, "That's not the way we used to do it," or "That's not the way Mom did it," the colonel said.
Sleep disruption also was discussed as a problem in the reintegration class. For example, one of the facilitators, an Army wife who had experienced reintegration, said how difficult it was to have her husband return and take up the whole bed tossing and turning.
Intimacy can become a big issue with just one touch, Hall noted. "This is particularly true for combat veterans who are accustomed to being constantly on guard, constantly vigilant and constantly looking out for harm," she said. "When you're in that kind of state, if somebody comes up behind you and just touches you casually, you can really have a difficult time with that. So one issue is just getting comfortable again with physical affection, just physical touching."
One of the most difficult issues expressed in the reintegration class was closeness. Many servicemen who had just returned faced redeployment, and this unknown affects couples trying to re-establish their relationship, Vineburgh noted. "Just how close to get is an issue when you know you might be soon separated," poignant remarks that epitomize the emotional challenges of servicemen and spouses, she continued.