“Will we really be better after deployment?” I began to ask myself this question tonight, out driving with my 14-month-old son and beautiful wife. It’s the day after Valentine’s, and we have 10 days left. Then our third deployment in 4 years will be here.
I missed his birth. I missed most of her pregnancy. We’ve come to understand that the leaving happens long before I go. And that the returning includes an adjustment period that’s lengthy and disorienting.
So what are we expecting of the future as our precious time ticks away? What are the other families in our command feeling and doing to prepare?
In the midst of these thoughts, I find myself asking if the words I’ve spoken in enthusiasm are true—“that we will be better, more stable, and stronger than before after this”?
Studies about the psychology of deployment have helped military families understand the emotional cycles of what we go through. They put in perspective this bumpy, sometimes wild ride. It can feel like gale force winds enveloping you in the months preceding departure. The emotions are normal reactions to an uncommon experience in our culture—an extended separation that includes the risk of physical danger, of psychological and spiritual damage, and of maybe never coming home. Though very helpful, simply defining the emotional cycles does not mean mastery of them. And it doesn’t guarantee wellness afterward.
The truth is, it’s not cynical to question whether this will all work out. In fact, seven months apart is a big deal. My wife will change. She will find herself, of necessity, no longer depending on my input. If necessary, she will drive our son to the ER by herself. She will likely lift her own luggage into the overhead compartments, and struggle to put on my son’s hoodie and hat while hefting carry-ons over either shoulder as they walk down the chute boarding the plane during multiple travels.
I will change too. What if our convoy strikes an improvised explosive device (IED)? What if I become hyper-vigilant for enemies seeking to kill my battle buddies and myself—then stay that way? How will I bear the sights of blood, and suffering, in medical triage should casualties occur? Will I have wisdom for men who have acted in ways that make them ashamed to lift their heads? Or have hope to offer dads and moms whose kids seem so distant?
I’m opening my heart, not to sensationalize deployment, or the service member’s experience of 17 years of War on Terror, but to honestly ask, “Are we gonna be okay?” What can safeguard this beloved hearth and home, this inner sanctum of being family? The threads that make us feel close, that give us happy downtime, the bonds that make the mundane fade and smiles and peacefulness descend.
Because deployment feels a bit like a beast that wants to devour that connection, that continuity of togetherness, and leave in its place the haunting thought, “You may ne’er pass this way again…”
So, I respond to the fear by agreeing. “Yes, our lives may be forever changed.” But more likely, I’ll return home. The deployment will have isolated moments of danger, loss, and strain. But by and large, I’ll feel along with our team that we’ve done what our Nation asked of us. We’ll feel some pride and extreme gratitude to get home. And then move forward with our dreams, and reunite with families and friends we love.
For my wife’s part, it will take time for her to start to trust me in all the old ways again. Time for her to be sure that I’m safe to talk to. That I’m safe to critique when I get a parenting step wrong. She’ll be grateful beyond words that I’m home. But she’ll have unseen wounds from the exhaustion of solo parenting. From difficulty sleeping, and the nightmares where I didn’t make it home, or something awful happened to our little boy. And then we’ll cry, and we’ll laugh, and we’ll work to rebuild our lives.
But my question to all the military families is this, who is doing the building in our lives when we re-integrate?
Because I’m certain of this. The deployment process itself is not safe. As a Chaplain, I know that couples grow apart. Spouses fail in their vows, at home or deployed forward. Children receive wounds to their trust and identity when either parent is suddenly gone from their life. The fragile bonds of love and security receive a battering from the separation. I can’t guarantee a safe or edifying deployment for all. But I do have this–a God that has a track record beyond compare.
And what if His promises are such that no MATTER WHAT COMES, He will make “all things work to the good of them that love Him and are called according to His purposes.” He is the God who is “the same Yesterday, Today and Forever.” His Goodness is more predictable than the movement of the Stars of the Universe. And He even ensured that the worse death to happen on our earth, Christ’s crucifixion, became the central point of redemption for every person ever born.
I believe my family’s deployment is safe with Him, for prayers will be lifted constantly by my wife and me binding us together. Our hopes, founded on Him, will not be shaken, because he is transforming us even as I write. And what I might have idolized –our home, our love—I am being forced, in His gentle and powerful way, to surrender back to Him who gave it first.
So, for all my friends who’ll hug goodbye some soon night. I want to lift a prayer, “Here, Lord, would You take this deployment, this physical distance stretching far beyond our reach. Would You guard its effects? And would You carry my family to that even better place? For our good and your glory?”
I imagine it will look like a crackling oak fire, the smell of bread and cinnamon. The music of a piano or guitar. Some snowflakes. The feel of salty tears on my wife’s cheek and mine, the laughter of children around the corner, and words of thanksgiving spoken around the table. Where we agree that He is good, He can be trusted, and that our Home was safe in his hands. And Jesus, whose name is “Cornerstone”, will be worshipped in a whole new way by us, now on the other side of this goodbye.