We all know that nothing is certain in military life. This seems to be especially true for deployments. You spend months waiting for your service member’s return, but the reality is that you never truly know when to expect them. Will it be at the seven-month mark, like the unit originally planned? Or take 300 days like it says on their orders? Will deployment last an extra two weeks because of quarantine? Or will they remain in country for two extra months while waiting to be relieved? Will they be home for the upcoming holiday? Honestly, who knows?
On the surface, most military spouses try to stay flexible about deployment dates. We know that things can constantly change, and that our service member doesn’t have any control over their schedule. We joke about writing return dates on the calendar in pencil, so we can erase them easily. But still … that doesn’t make a deployment extension any easier to accept when it happens. When you have spent months waiting to be reunited with the one you love, a delay of just a few days feels like a heavy burden. And an extension lasting several months seems almost impossible to handle.
So, what can you do to prepare yourself for a possible extension to your service member’s deployment? And how can you successfully navigate that experience if it happens to you? Keep reading for tips from military spouses who have been through it.
Expect unexpected delays
Here’s the honest truth — deployment dates are always a guesstimate, and the return can be delayed for any number of reasons. Sometimes a unit comes home on staggered dates, so some service members will arrive several weeks before others. Their return date may depend on their job within the unit.
Other delays are caused by mechanical and technical issues. Planes break down. Ships must wait for good weather to transport troops.
Homecomings can also be delayed on purpose if spouses have been publicly discussing dates on social media and the unit leadership deems it to be a security risk. (Don’t be that spouse!)
Finally, sometimes a unit’s plans get changed. Maybe they respond to an international incident that changes their mission. They move to a different location. They are waiting on another unit to relieve them. These things happen all the time, and during the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, extensions happened a lot more than usual. The more you tell yourself to expect a delay near the end of a deployment, the better mentally prepared you will be when the extension news comes.
Revise your countdown
It’s common for military families to have some type of countdown during their service member’s deployment. Maybe you use an app on your phone with a pie chart that shows you how much progress you have made. Or you may have a decorated wall at home that tells you how many days remain until they come home. There are two problems with these countdowns. First, how do you know what date to use? Any date announced at the beginning of deployment will most likely change several times. The second problem with these countdowns is that every time you have to adjust the date, it’s a mental blow. Whether you add links to the paper chain, erase the chalkboard number, or sneak more chocolate kisses into the “Kisses from Daddy” jar, you will probably feel frustrated and defeated that the goal keeps getting farther out of reach.
Instead of counting down to a hypothetical return date, try counting up. Counting up is a more positive approach that focuses on celebrating your own strength and accomplishments during your time apart, rather than pinning all your hope onto one homecoming date. Have a mini celebration each weekend to recognize another week completed. Count up using trash days or paydays to mark off the time as it goes by. When you are counting up, it’s much easier mentally to adjust your countdown. It’s just a few more weekends, or another pay cycle, or three more trash days.
Find the right support
Outside the military community, it’s difficult to find someone to understand the stress and frustration of a deployment extension. If you share the news with family members, they may respond with unhelpful comments such as, “It’s just a few more weeks, what’s the big deal?” Or “Don’t worry, deployment will be over before you know it!” These insensitive replies hurt, even when they come from people who mean well.
Instead, share your extension frustration with someone in the military community who truly understands. I remember how crushed I felt when one deployment was extended for just three days! So, I would never trivialize the painful experience of another MilSpouse in that situation. Find a safe place to vent, either to a military friend or in an online spouse group. If you don’t have a close military friend, remember that you can always talk to the professional counselors on Military OneSource. Many are former military spouses or service members who are familiar with the unique challenges of deployment.
Deployment extensions happen, and they are never easy to handle. But if you prepare yourself and have the right support network, you can find the strength to get through them!