Welcome to deployment — be it your first or 50th (bless your resilient heart), you are in the company of some extremely strong stock. Deployment isn’t for the faint of heart — serving overseas or at home.
You’ve no doubt heard a lot of encouraging pep talks about how “you’ve got this,” and I have no doubt that you do. But, I remember the whirlwind of that first week of deployment (the highlights anyway). I kept coming back to a feeling that I closely associate to the one I had during childbirth: Why wasn’t I warned?
To be fair, I know I technically was warned, on the big stuff — the gist, childbirth and deployment are not times I want my sources to skimp on the details. I remember one predeployment brief in particular where they sat me down at a table among friends and showed me a PowerPoint slideshow of the phases of deployment — your basic denial-acceptance-grief-coping-excitement cycle (that is likely out of order, don’t quote me on that).
But no one pulled me aside, friend to friend, looked me square in the eyes and translated what those phases would look like in living color. Had they done that, it would have sounded something like this:
- You will wear only sweatpants and pajamas for a time. I can say now without shame that I went to a movie with my group of deployment buddies one evening, and I realized when I got home that my fly was down the entire time. That’s when you know you’re out of practice with any pair of pants requiring a zipper.
- You will get lax with hygiene. That first deployment, I think I changed my razor blade three, maybe four times — which I’m only just now realizing was incredibly icky. To my defense, that deployment overlapped with winter, so some of that was seasonal.
- Your diet is going to get weird. If you and your spouse don’t have kids (which was our situation the first time around), you might find it easy to scrap cooking altogether. I reverted back to the diet of my bachelorette days: chips and dip, popcorn, delivery pizza, drive-thru, etc. My diet got so weird, in fact, that I unintentionally cut out red meat, and eight years later, I still don’t eat it. If you have kids, you’ll probably start eating a lot of mashed or nugget-shaped foods — depending on the age of your kids. That second deployment was a lot of smoothies, mashed sweet potatoes and hummus for me and the kiddo.
- You will become furious with people for reasons you can’t understand just because they complained about missing their spouse for the weekend. Oh no, you didn’t.
- You will find superhuman ambition. That first deployment changed the course of my life forever — bear with me through the cheesiness of that line. I lost the teaching job I was offered due to budget cuts, so I was bored out of my mind — nothing to do for the first time in my entire life. So, I took a nod from a friend and pitched a column about my military spouse experience to our local paper. They bit. I wrote that column the entire deployment and two and a half years more. It led to the writing job I’ve held more than five years — which includes this blog you’re reading now — it’s the reason I’m going to grad school. And it all started because I was bored. That’s my story, I’m sure yours will be equally unexpected and incredible. Never underestimate the brilliance and strength of military spouses with time on their hands.
- You will be the bearer of bad news. It’s the Murphy’s Law of the whole situation: Something will go awry on your watch. You’ll likely have to give bad news over video chat, email, phone call, penned letter, carrier pigeon, etc. It’s not fun. The best advice I can give is grit your teeth, roll up your sleeves and deal with it (whatever it is). When you report the details across the miles, be confident. You handled it — no big deal. I always try to keep things in perspective: Yes, the dog got out and I had to chase her down the street and my son’s diaper leaked all over everything, but at no point was I in danger. Life is stressful — believe me, I get it, but don’t make each conversation with your deployed spouse negative. Find a balance that leaves you both looking forward to your chats.
- You will have to do it yourself. This is a good point to pause so you can go do whatever that is — fish your car keys out of the toilet, change a tire, be mom and dad, etc. Then, come on back and start back at number eight.
- You will get sappy. Have you ever teared up at a movie and then couldn’t believe you let yourself get so emotional? I cried at a Journey concert over the lyrics “I’m forever yours, faithfully.” My circle of friends hasn’t let me live that down to this day. I’m not a public crier, but sometimes deployment is driving and we are just the passengers.
- You will feel guilty for having fun. Eventually you have to liberate yourself from the sweatpants and have a little fun. Maybe it’ll be 24 hours, maybe two months — the length of your phases is your call. But you will find yourself laughing and spending time with friends, but guilt may be your plus one to the fun. Give yourself some slack. Laugh with your friends, do something on your bucket list — even if you’re flying solo. Go out to lunch. Travel back home to see your family. Get a pedicure. You’re doing a lot for your family (whether it’s just you and your spouse or you, your spouse and some adorable kiddos), so you deserve some “me time.”
- You will get downright giddy as you round the corner to homecoming. I cleaned, grocery shopped and cleaned some more for 48 hours straight leading up to homecoming day (part one). I envisioned the grandiose reunion, the ticker tape, the jazz band, and I was ready for it all.
- Your reunion will feel a little anticlimactic. You have your spouse in your arms, and at the end of the day, that is literally the only thing that matters. That is what you waited and wished for every day for months. As happy as the reunion will be, it’s worth mentioning that it won’t look like that scenario playing out in your head. It can be delayed (prepare yourself in advance for that). It might be dark. It may be cold. You might have a cold. Your spouse may have some readjusting to do. You need to slow down, ditch the vision of the ideal reunion and focus on reintegration. Love each other. Respect each other’s space and routines. Be patient. Be together.
That’s every last detail — the real breakdown of your deployment phases. They may not happen in that order, and you may come back to the sweatpants (or any other phase) a few times. But, that’s OK — because, one phase or another, you will get through it.