The Holidays and Military Service
Contributed by Alan Rohlfing
As I write this piece for our blog, I feel a little bit of nostalgia coming on. We’re more than halfway through December, the snow has been falling for more than a day now, and the long-range forecast predicts that temperatures won’t be above freezing for the next few days. But after more than thirty years in uniform, my thoughts tend to drift, much like the snow. Drift, not so much to the days of my youth sledding on the hills of our farm, but to the holidays spent away from the ones I loved the most.
Like most of the old Soldiers I know, I have plenty of memories of time spent away from my family. Sometimes it was due to a field exercise or temporary duty somewhere, but the memories that really stick with you are those deployments that result in a family separation during the holidays.
For many, being apart during those holidays near the end of the year are the toughest. And while I’m a Christian, I’ve served with plenty of men and women of other faiths – and the separations as a result of military deployments are tough no matter what religious holidays you miss. For my family, the most special time of the year is Christmas…and I count my first and last deployments as my most memorable (and dreadful, and frightful) military experiences because of what I would rather have been doing during that time of year. I recently came upon a blog post on MilitaryTimes.com from Army wife Maria Cordova, where she shared survival tips from Military Spouses, tips for when loved ones are deployed during the holidays (https://www.militarytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2018/11/20/is-your-loved-one-deployed-during-the-holidays-military-spouses-share-their-survival-tips/). In that piece, she tells of a friend that was going to celebrate everything her Service Member was going to miss – celebrate those things before he deployed. And that’s exactly what my parents had planned for me, some 29 years ago.
My first family separation came as we were preparing to deploy in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in late 1990. I was a young Field Artillery officer with no wife and kids, but with parents and three sisters and an extended family that meant the world to me. From the time President Bush (the first) announced on TV what we were doing in response to the invasion of Kuwait, it was asses-to-elbows, with not much down time. We were painting vehicles, receiving pieces of equipment that had once been considered luxury items, and loading trains. After our equipment was headed to the port, we had a few days off…so I headed home to see my folks for what I thought would be the last time for a while.
As I said earlier, my parents wanted to celebrate everything I was going to miss, so on one night in early November 1990, we had a Thanksgiving feast in one room of our farmhouse, a Christmas tree loaded with presents in another, a New Year’s Eve party (complete with Father Time) in yet another, and several birthday cakes at the kitchen table. It seemed a bit unusual at the time, but it made for great memories that we still talk about today.
My last deployment was a bit harder to tough out. A decade ago, I deployed with the Missouri National Guard to Kosovo for a nearly-year-long mission that found me serving at spots all around that country. While I wasn’t being shot at or fighting insurgents in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan like many of my colleagues, I did find myself leading men and women over the Christmas holiday at a remote outpost in the northern reaches of Kosovo. A small desktop Christmas tree, a visit from Santa Claus (who arrived on an Army helicopter), and a short Skype call to my wife and young boys as they were opening up their presents at home – that was our holiday season in late 2008. And though it sucked being separated from family, being there with others in uniform – with men and women that I admired and respected – made it bearable, and memorable.
Those deployment experiences of mine, however memorable, stand in stark contrast to one another, but any time spent away from home and family is hard. And I know that the holidays aren’t so special for a lot of folks, but they were for me. Looking back, I feel fortunate that, for those holidays and for those ‘everydays’ during which I was called away from my family to serve, I was able to break bread and chew the fat with my other family, my brothers and sisters in arms.
Yes, I’m a bit older these days, and hopefully a little bit wiser. I retired from the US Army a couple of years ago and there’s a bit more gray in my beard than I would like. I consider myself lucky, I suppose – luckier than some of my comrades that didn’t return, and just plain lucky to have served in a career that I love. My youngest son just turned 18 years old and my oldest will turn 21 in just a few days…that in itself makes me feel my age. But when I think about all those special times with my wife and kids, I also think about those holidays when we were apart so many years ago. Those were tough times, but I’m thankful because we made it through them…and now they’re a part of who we are and where we’ve been. This holiday season, I ask you to remember that we still have thousands of Service Members deployed around the world, separated from their families. Keep them in your thoughts and say a short prayer for them every now and then.
Until next time…
By Debbie Gregory.
Did you know that U.S. Marine recruits aren’t able to make calls or send emails from boot camp? Now there is an app to address that problem.
SANDBOXX is a mobile app that connects the military community with their friends and loved ones by giving them the ability to send physical mail to those in basic training, boot camp or on deployment directly from their cell phones.
The SANDBOXX app allows loved ones to type a note on their smartphone and have it turned into a printed letter, which is then sent the old-fashioned way: snail mail. Recruits can then write a letter in return and have it converted back to email.
Former Marine Ray Smith was supposed to be retired, but instead he has teamed up with fellow former Marine Sam Meek after discussing their mutual interest for connecting the extended military community.
They founded SANDBOXX in 2013 and launched the letters app the following year to assist servicemembers and their spouses, parents, friends, siblings – anyone with a connection to the armed services.
The culture shock of suddenly losing contact to the online world can take a toll on morale and interfere with training, especially for the generations of men and women who have come of age with smartphone in hand.
Since the app was launched, SANDBOXX has passed some 900,000 letters through its platform, with about 70 percent of the company’s current letter volume coming from the Marine Corps.
But as word of the app spreads, more people are using it to contact deployed Army soldiers and Air Force personnel, with the app available to new Coast Guard members starting in January.
The ultimate goal of the company’s founders is to build a social media platform unique to the military community. They have already created a social media app called “units” based around the military’s organizational structure. Any current or former member of the U.S. military can log in, put in their unit and year, and be connected solely with people from that unit and year.
By Debbie Gregory.
A new study may open doors to more effective treatment for veterans as they move from active-duty to life after the military, especially in light of the fact that Veterans may be more likely to commit suicide during the first year after they leave the military than after more time passes.
A new study at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, lead by study author Yu-Chu Shen, revealed that compared to those on active duty in the military, veterans out of the service for up to three months were 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide. Veterans who had left the service from three to 12 months earlier had almost triple the suicide odds of current members of the military.
The study didn’t examine why the suicide risk was lower during deployment than afterwards. But it’s possible service members benefited from the positive psychological impact of belonging to a group with a shared mission during deployment, Shen said, then had more time to contemplate any negative feelings about their experiences when they were no longer on the mission.
“Family members and community can be proactive to reach out to veterans if they recently experienced stressful events – not just limited to the stressful events we can capture in the data such as divorce or separation from the military,” said Shen.
Overall, there were 4,492 suicides in the study population.
In the Lancet Psychiatry, researchers reported that the strongest predictors of suicide were current or past diagnoses of self-inflicted injuries, major depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse or other mental health conditions.
Compared with service members who were never deployed, those who were currently deployed had a 50 percent lower risk of suicide, the study found.
However, in the first quarter following deployment, service members had a 50 percent higher risk of suicide than their peers who didn’t experience deployment.
The study doctors and researchers hope to lower the biggest barrier to veterans receiving the care they need when they get home, and that’s the stigma surrounding asking for help in the first place.
By Debbie Gregory.
We often talk about the sacrifices that military spouses make, especially during deployments. Besides shouldering all of the family responsibilities, military spouses face long periods of separation from their spouses, and have the constant fear of those loved ones becoming injured or dying.
Now a report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has revealed that military wives are more likely than their civilian peers to abuse prescription medications meant to treat anxiety, attention deficit disorder and other psychological problems. They are also more likely than civilian wives to suffer from mental illness, consume liquor and binge drink.
The relatively younger population of military wives partly explains the high levels of drinking, but the higher rates of mental illness might stem from the unusual hardships these women face — long periods of separation from husbands on deployment and the constant fear of those loved ones becoming injured or dying.
Researchers estimated that more than 29 percent of the nation’s 910,000 military wives ages 18 to 49 suffered mental illness within the past year and that about 23 percent received treatment for their problems.
Nearly 20 percent of women married to civilians suffered from mental illness last year and 17 percent got help for it, the survey indicated.
Substance abuse and mental health challenges among the nation’s estimated 242,000 military husbands was not examined due to the relatively small number of them.
The analysis of data on military families will provide potentially useful data that should enable policymakers, researchers, and health care providers to answer and respond to several critical questions about military families. Understanding these topics could inform policies and practices to improve the lives of military families and benefit the personnel who serve.
The report was authored by Rachel N. Lipari, Barbara Forsyth, and Jonaki Bose.