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When The Troops Come Home

After nine years of war, the strains facing military families won't end any time soon. The military and the families themselves will have to keep dealing with them long after the last soldier returns.


(John Moore/Getty Images)

Going off to war is hard. All too often, so is coming home.

The total number of American troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq has finally started to come down. But from on-base counseling offices to the White House, the realization is growing that the strain on military families does not end when the warriors come home. Problems as severe as post-traumatic stress disorder and as mundane as who pays the bills can make reintegration after the deployment as difficult as the separation during it.


Matthew McCollum's brother, a marine, died in Afghanistan. When Matthew, an Army major, later deployed to the Afghan war, his wife, Angel, held herself and their two sons together during the year apart. "I kept saying, 'Your Uncle Dan is your Daddy's angel; he'll watch over him, I promise,' " she told National Journal. She even managed to move the family from one base to another in anticipation of her husband's transfer to a new unit. Finally, in the first days after Matthew's return to the United States, while he was still at his old base dealing with post-deployment paperwork, the dam broke.

"I called him one evening and it was, like, 9:30 to 10:00 at night, [and] he didn't answer, and I immediately got panicked," Angel said. "I kept on calling and calling.... By 11:30, I was ready to call the front desk to have them key into his room to make sure he wasn't dead." When Matthew finally got in and called his wife, he chided her for overreacting. Angel's response could serve as a credo for those whose war is on the home front:

"Did you pray for me every single night that you were gone that somebody wouldn't shoot me or blow me up or kill me or drag my body through the streets?... Did you pray for me every night that I wouldn't have a heart attack from the stress?" she asked her husband. "Matt, I have been holding your vigil.... Until you've rocked your sons to sleep and assured them as they were crying that Daddy would be OK and things were going to be all right, you have no right to tell me I've overreacted.


"And that's the only argument we had," Angel finished with a laugh.

The McCollums talked it through and stayed together -- and he stayed in the Army. But not every military family makes it.

'The First Lady Is Raising The Bar'

Military divorce rates have risen, slightly but noticeably since 2005. "She was, like, 'I can't deal with another deployment,' " said Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Schmidt, whose wife left him between his two tours in Iraq. "Separation does things to people. A lot of people don't know how to handle those emotions or to seek help when they need help."

The flip side of the marriages that break up because of the military is the people who leave the military to save their marriages. "When I was overseas with the National Guard, lots of us got 'Dear John' letters, 'Dear John' phone calls, from significant others saying, 'Sorry, we just can't do this.' And that was awful. That was more awful than the bombs," said Patrick Campbell, a former Guard sergeant now with the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "I ended up getting out of the Guard because I had a significant other that I did not want to gamble with by going on another deployment -- especially considering [that] my last one left me when I was only gone for three months."


Campbell summed up, "I'm glad I made the decision I did. We're married, and we're about to have a kid in January."

From a hard-nosed policy standpoint, military families matter because unhappy loved ones can persuade expensively trained troops to quit. "You recruit and train a soldier, but you retain the family," said Denis McDonough, chief of staff for the National Security Council, which is completing a top-level review of how every Cabinet department, not just the Pentagon, can support military families. "So, the policy rationale and the economics of scale and the savings to the taxpayer and everything of all that is obvious. But in a lot of ways, it's kind of an emotional thing here [at the White House]. The first lady is raising the bar on this."

Michelle Obama has made military families a White House priority, backed by the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, whose son served in Iraq. The two women have made many visits to bases to listen to families' concerns. At one Oval Office meeting, McDonough recalled, President Obama looked over 2011 spending proposals and said, "This is easy.... Here's the deal: I'm not going to go home tonight and tell the first lady of the United States that I had an opportunity to ensure that our budget meets the investments that she's been telling me about, but that I didn't take it."

That choice may get harder, however, as budgets get tighter.

'We Know Cuts Are Coming'

Since 9/11, the Defense Department has invested heavily in family support initiatives, from marriage counselors to child psychologists and financial advisers. But these programs are under pressure as the war winds down, the recession lingers, and deficits mount.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly pegged spending on family support at $9 billion a year. A closer look at the Pentagon's budget puts the figure at about $10.7 billion in both fiscal 2010 and the 2011 funding request. That counts both the base budget and wartime supplemental spending specifically devoted to military families, including on-base schools, youth programs, and subsidized grocery stores. But even that figure does not include families' large but unquantified share of military housing allowances, a total of $19.7 billion requested for 2011; or military health care spending of $50.7 billion. Indeed, military wages and benefits, driven in large part by dependents, are in ever more intense competition with combat operations and weapons procurement.

"People are looking at health care costs as a component of Pentagon spending," McDonough said. "Gates and the president are working very vigorously on reform, and part of reform has to be our effort to bring down the cost of health care. By the same token, we've made clear that a mission-critical effort is keeping our force healthy, keeping our families healthy, making sure that they get a good education." The National Security Council's ongoing review is trying to square that circle by going after "duplicative" or "wasteful" spending in military family programs.

"We know cuts are coming down the road," said Kathleen Moakler, government-relations director at the National Military Family Association, which organized a May family summit keynoted by the first lady. Michelle Obama's office and military officials consult the association regularly.

Even family advocates agree that rationalization is in order. Support initiatives have proliferated, with inconsistent coordination and attention to cost-effectiveness. Many military families are simply confused about who can help with what.

"Are there redundancies in a lot of programs? Yes," Moakler said. "We need to look at which programs are working and fund those, and then get rid of the redundancies." That said, she emphasized, "we also want to make sure that these programs that are working are sustained and wouldn't come to an end, say, next July 2012, when everyone's supposed to pull out of Iraq."

After nine years of war, the problems are just beginning to surface. A 1988 study of the children of Holocaust survivors showed that a parent's post-traumatic stress disorder predisposed the child to PTSD. The government, advocates, and the families themselves will have to keep working long after the last soldier comes home.

'I Can't Fix Him'

In June and July of 2002, four Army sergeants stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., murdered their wives. Two killed themselves as well. Three of the four men had previously deployed to Afghanistan. The incidents were a clear and early warning that returning veterans might bring this war home to their families. Eight years later, suicide rates continue to rise; and for every such obvious casualty, countless others quietly struggle through.

Tech. Sgt. Herbert Simpson is a husband, a father, and a member of an Air Force security squadron that is tasked with police operations on the ground. His second tour in Iraq -- of three -- came at the height of the violence, in 2006-07, when his unit not only took heavy casualties but found numerous murdered Iraqis. One memory haunts him in particular. "It was a dad and a daughter," Simpson said, before describing mutilations that will not be printed here. "That, I think, really affected me because the girl was around 9 to 11 -- so, older than my daughter would have been, but still a daughter, nonetheless, and a dad couldn't do anything to stop it."

Simpson returned home to the round of post-deployment briefings from chaplains, financial advisers, and psychologists that have become standard. Unlike many other veterans who are afraid to report problems that might delay their return or hurt their career, Simpson immediately self-referred to counseling. There is no quick cure, though. When he got home, "We had a lot of arguments.... I was rigid; I demanded things to be my way," Simpson said. "I didn't want to take my anger out on my kids or my wife, and I did my damnedest not to. There was one [time] I just got so mad, I just went to the garage and closed the garage and just started to cry."

His wife, Selina, said, "He was angry at the world. He wasn't angry at the children. He was very angry and depressed, but he didn't let the kids see that.... They only saw their fun-loving dad who likes to give horsey rides. [But] I saw it. My demands were, 'Either you fix it -- 'cause it's got to change -- or we'll have to discuss living arrangements.' "

Three years of therapy later, "I still get my dreams," Sgt. Simpson said. "I would wake up and, still to this day, I would smell burnt flesh." But he and Selina are still together -- unlike many couples from his unit.

Marriage counselors, military and civilian, emphasize communication, but Herbert and Selina Simpson say there are limits to what they can share. "I can't fix him. I support him, but I can't fix it," she said. "And I have chosen not to be burdened with his knowledge, just for my own mental health. I don't need to know those things. And I know that sounds like a horrible thing to say aloud and to try to explain to somebody, but I deal with the day to day and making sure the kids are happy."

'Spouses Suffer PTSD'

Those who send their loved ones off to war suffer differently than those who go and fight, but they suffer nonetheless. Dawn Phillips, an Army wife of 30 years, was on the phone with her husband, who was stationed in Baghdad's Green Zone, when "it dawned on me that the noise in the background was a rocket coming in," she said. "The last thing I heard was BOOM, and the phone went dead. I just fell down on the floor sobbing," she recalled. "I thought he was gone. Twenty minutes later, he was able to get a call through, and I still couldn't quit sobbing."

Even after David Phillips returned, he had to travel so frequently for work -- what the military calls temporary duty, or TDY -- that she was often alone, having sent their youngest child off to college. "I was crying a lot, still, all the time, and while he was gone TDY, I contemplated suicide," Phillips said. "I went out and stood up on the back porch and looked over and thought, 'Damn, if I jump, I'm just going to break my arm or leg, and it's not going to do anything.' "

David Phillips, now a brigadier general, has cut back on his travel. "I truly believe in my heart that family members, spouses, suffer PTSD," he said. "We need to address them too."

In the DSM-IV, the official handbook of the psychiatric profession, the triggers of post-traumatic stress disorder include "learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate." Given the constant "threat of death or injury" in the war zone, almost any deployed service member's loved ones can meet that criterion.

The experiences of those who go and those who stay are so different that, even when families get back together, the gap is still hard to bridge. Like Selina Simpson, many military spouses admit that they cannot bear to know the details of what their loved one experienced; many warriors say they do not want their spouses to know.

"I don't really share a lot of that with my wife," said Maj. Matthew Kuhns, an Army explosives ordnance disposal officer responsible for defusing improvised bombs. "I don't need to put it on her shoulders," he said. "Mostly, I've talked to other EOD folks about it, which is pretty therapeutic.... We all start to cry and tell our stories, and kind of get through it."

Some spouses, on the other hand, feel shut out. After Brig. Gen. Phillips's unit came back from his first Iraq deployment, "we had a huge picnic there, and the families were doing stuff, but a big group of us [soldiers] got together. All of a sudden, we're talking real animated because we had all been through different experiences together. And it was almost as if we're an inner circle, and we're around this little bonfire, and all the spouses were outside of that circle. And when my wife pointed that out to me, I saw what she meant. She goes, 'I don't know you now. You don't include us; you don't include me in what took place.' "

'Little Funny Things'

Not all the post-deployment strains on a military family are dramatic. Some are as mundane as dirty dishes.

"[When] there's soup bowls in the sink that should've been rinsed out and put in the dishwasher, it's really easy to start getting mad about it and yelling at your wife or yelling at your family," said Kuhns, the Army bomb squad officer. "But you have to look at it and just kind of take a step back and say, 'Man, I'm glad I'm home and that these are my worries now.' "

Any couple would encounter some frictions in living together again after months or even a year apart. The fact that those months were saturated with life-or-death anxieties only winds the stress tighter. "You finally let your guard down from worrying and worrying and worrying," said Angel McCollum, but then "you start to get mad, like when he does little funny things around the house -- man, they just sound silly -- but not putting your dish away. And you just get angry. Like, 'Do you have any idea how much I worried for you? Put your dish away!'... It sounds silly, but you really do feel those feelings."

Often, a big fight over small things is really about issues deep underneath. Sometimes, it is about the undischarged anxiety built up over a year of being in harm's way, or a year of worrying about a loved one in harm's way. Sometimes, however, the problem comes from something positive, from growth. Of necessity, the spouse left behind takes over all the tasks that the couple once shared -- paying the bills, mowing the lawn, getting the car repaired -- and while stressful, that experience can also be empowering.

"I've become very resourceful. I can do all that myself," aid Tiffany Gully, whose husband's Army Special Forces unit deploys frequently. "You learn where the filter is for the air conditioner to be changed, and you learn how to start the lawn mower."

But such newfound independence requires renegotiating the balance of power in the relationship when the other spouse returns. "We always, still to this day, have a power struggle when he gets back, because I'm used to being in charge, and I'm the one who handles all the money," Tiffany Gully said. In the field, "he's been living with practically nothing; when he comes back, he wants to buy things, things that I don't think we need necessarily. He's big into his guitars and his music, so I have to just let him ... buy his toys."

It could be worse: One service member, who asked to not to be named, returned from a deployment to find that his wife had racked up $20,000 in debt. They are still together.

Renegotiating family roles is a delicate task, for which a year of screaming orders at subordinates in a combat zone is not good preparation. "It's kind of like taking a caveman and throwing him back into a civilized world," Maj. Kuhns said. "I've seen at least eight divorces out of two deployments. Not my own, thank God, but I've seen other people's relationships unravel quickly after they came home." 

'Some Men Can't Accept That'

It is hard enough to renegotiate family roles when a serviceman comes home to his wife after months apart. It is even harder when a servicewoman comes home to her husband. Across the armed services, marriages in which a military woman is married to a civilian man rupture at a much higher rate than marriages between a civilian woman and a military man. In fact, military wives and their civilian husbands break up more often than couples in which both partners are in uniform and subject to deployment. Despite the higher stress on the "dual-military" couple, including husband and wife going to war at the same time, a wife going off to war while the husband stays at home with the kids turns out to be more of a role reversal than many can bear.

"Most men -- or some men -- just can't accept that, being the caregiver and stuff and having to do everything, and not knowing 'When is she going to have to go again?' " said Tech. Sgt. Yoshema Bryant. She and her husband met and got married while they were both in the Air Force, and "it was difficult from the very beginning." But when he left the military and she stayed in, the relationship became far harder. Like many service members' spouses, Bryant's husband struggled to find jobs, let alone have a career, while moving every few years from base to base, often in rural areas of the country or abroad.

"He was working at the base exchange for a little bit," Bryant said. "Prior to that, he stayed home with our daughter for about six months before he could even find anything." And that was before 9/11. When war came, and Bryant deployed for four months in 2004, becoming a temporary single dad was too much for her husband. "I think that was probably what started everything," Bryant said. "Every time I called, I was like 'How's the baby?' so I can't really remember ever talking to him." The couple grew apart. Soon after she returned, their 10-year marriage broke up.

Bryant was pregnant when she and her husband separated. Now she is a single military mother of two girls, whom she had to leave during her second deployment, in 2008. "[My husband] has custody of them during the summer, so they went from being with me, to being with the godmom, to being with the dad, to being back with the godmom, to coming back with me," she said. Her elder daughter stepped up to the big-sister role, but her younger child is still recovering, Bryant said: Even a year after the deployment ended, "every time I would leave her, [she'd ask], 'Where are you going? Are you coming back?' "

'The Kids Come Around'

How many youngsters have had to send a parent off to war? Estimates say that more than 2 million American children, from newborns to teens, have been affected. In an official 2008 survey of military spouses, among families where children had experienced a parent's deployment, 29 percent of the children reported difficulty reconnecting when the deployed parent came home. Put those figures together, and the number of children who have struggled is roughly 580,000.

In a study conducted by Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist at the Rand think tank, in conjunction with the National Military Family Association, older children on average had a harder time than younger ones, and girls had a harder time than boys. The higher the emotional development, the greater the capacity for distress. There are plenty of exceptions, such as Bryant's own family, where the younger daughter is more stressed, but as a general rule, the military families interviewed by National Journal confirmed the "older equals harder" pattern.

Maj. Kuhns and his wife, for example, now have three children, ages 9, 7, and 4. "My son ... he's easy," Kuhns said. "He was a baby; he didn't know what the heck was going on." As for his middle child, even when she was as old as 4, "she was pretty oblivious to the fact that Daddy was going away," he said. "When I was giving her a hug goodbye, she was asking why I had water coming out of my eyes."

Across many families, however, age 5 seems to be a critical threshold in a child's awareness. After coming home from one deployment, Kuhns had to fly to a different base to check in with superiors. As he was getting ready at 3 a.m. for an early-morning flight, his eldest, then 5, woke and got out of bed.

"She saw my uniforms and a suitcase, and she just had a meltdown -- she absolutely lost it," he said. "She was convinced I was going to be leaving again." Kuhns sat with her and calmed her, promising not only to be back soon but to call every day. "Given enough time, and enough moments where you talk, as opposed to scream or yell, the kids come around," Kuhns said. "They're extremely resilient people."

Resilience has its limits, though, as the deployments mount. Rand scholars have found that the total number of months apart, rather than the number of separations and reunions, correlates most closely with children's stress level. So, for example, one 12-month deployment -- the Army's standard -- is worse than two four- or five-month separations -- typical in the Air Force. "Our average number of months [gone] was closer to a year in the last three years," Chandra said, "but we did have some people who were pretty much absent the whole three years."

Some high-demand military jobs require so many deployments and so much cumulative time away that the children of these military parents simply learn to live without them. "They get a little numb, as much as he's gone, to his absence, so they're used to just being Mommy and them," said Tiffany Gully. When he comes home, "it's sad to say, but he's almost an intruder in the beginning."

'We've Come So Far'

Military life has gotten much harder since the "garrison" days of the Cold War, when Army and Air Force personnel, in particular, lived predictable lives on well-established bases. (The Navy and the Marine Corps always had a regular cycle of separation and reintegration as troops went to sea, albeit not usually to war.) The armed forces are trying to rise to the need with ever-greater investments in family support. Most fundamental of all, the military's leadership has undergone a cultural revolution since the bad old days when the joke was, "If the Army (or Air Force, or Navy, or Marines) wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one."

"When our first daughter was born in Europe, back in 1982, my wife had to have an emergency delivery," said Brig. Gen. Phillips. "[I] nearly lost our daughter and my wife.... Not one person in the chain of command called, came over to hospital in Nuremberg, or even seemed to care ... yet the soldiers in the platoon where I was a platoon leader would file in there and come to see us." From his superiors, he said, "the only concern was why I came in late the next day to work."

Now a senior officer himself, with two deployments to Iraq, Phillips made a major effort to build up family support during his recent tour as commander of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. "I personally received a phone call from one of the colonels who was deployed [because] the family could not start his car," Phillips said. "I was in my truck, rolled right down the street, got to the house.... All I needed to do was put a power pack on the battery and jump it."

That kind of help for families is increasingly the norm rather than the exception among military leaders. No less a figure than Army Chief of Staff George Casey laid out an Army Family Covenant in 2007. "So many of the folks who are Army leaders now -- your battalion leaders, your brigade commanders -- were brand new right after Desert Storm, so they have grown up in the family-centric Army," said Kathy Ledbetter, who specializes in post-deployment reintegration at the Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, and who is married to a now-retired soldier who did two Iraq tours. "We've come so far since I became an Army wife in '82."

Casey's Family Covenant instituted free child care for children of deployed soldiers, 16 hours a month, starting 30 days or more before deployment and continuing 30 or more days after. Family Readiness Groups, once run entirely by volunteer spouses, now have paid administrative assistants. Units are required to brief troops on family separation issues before deploying and on reintegration, both before and after returning home. "A lot of us don't want to do it," Maj. Kuhns said. "It's one more mandatory thing that you've got to do when you come home from a deployment, but you listen to it enough, you get told it enough, and it actually starts to stick."

The quality of the programs varies widely, however. Some commands simply pack troops into an auditorium and show slides. Others conduct multiday family retreats and small-group seminars for service members and spouses.

"We decided after a couple times that PowerPoint -- 'death by PowerPoint' as the Army calls it -- wasn't going to work," said Lt. Col. Michael Gafney, who runs the nationally mandated but state-administered Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program for the Maryland National Guard. "So we started with small groups.... Twenty to 30 people, taught by almost always two professional people in the room -- professional psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, psychiatric nurse practitioners" -- with one professional to lead the discussion, the other to watch those who do not speak and approach them later. Maryland wants to add family reintegration events up to a year after a unit returns, Gafney added, but "there's no funding for that right now, which is the biggest problem."

Though Congress upped Yellow Ribbon grants to $246 million in 2010, that's still less than $5 million per state or territory National Guard. Some active-duty family programs report similar constraints. As pressure on the defense budget builds, "we don't want family programs to be part of a peace dividend," said the National Military Family Association's Moakler. "We need to determine what the needs will be to sustain these families if and when the war ever ends."

This article appears in the September 18, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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