Wednesday, February 27, 2013

R&R: A Two-Week Roller Coaster Ride

image via

Rest and Recuperation, better known as R&R, is one of the most anticipated segments of a deployment. Your loved one can come home for two weeks or you can meet them somewhere else. After having been through R&R recently I have a lot of posts planned about it. It is definitely something military spouses and significant others think a lot about and do a lot of planning for.

If I could describe what R&R feels like it would be comparing it to going to an amusement park to ride the newest, wildest roller coaster. In the days before you go, you start getting so excited you can't think straight. Then the day comes and you are giddy -- your loved one arrives (you stand at the foot of the roller coaster). You greet each other and step onto the roller coaster. The roller coaster climbs, spins, dives, and twists and you loving every minute of it for two full weeks, surrounded by people and constant noise and activity. The are voices coming at you from every direction. Everyone is fully engrossed in the moment.

Then R&R (your roller coaster ride) comes to an abrupt, screeching, jolting stop. This is the moment when your loved one walks through the doors to the plane out of your sight. And there you stand on the roller coaster platform, suddenly standing stick still, not knowing what to do with yourself. You're dizzy, exhausted, topsy-turvy, bewildered and lost. Suddenly everything has stopped moving, it's quiet, there are no crowds around you, no one cheering and hollering. Everything stops. You figure it's time to  wind your way through the meandering exit, out the front gates and back to your car. Everything inside you is still spinning but the world outside is holding very still...and they are gone again and you go back to your "we can do it" deployment survival camp and carry on. But happily, you are rejuvenated with wonderful fresh memories to carry you through.

Monday, February 25, 2013

On The Spot: The Public Hellos and Goodbyes

image via

Saying goodbye to the love of your life in a crowd of other people becomes pretty routine when you are a military significant other or spouse. Goodbyes happen in parking lots, on ship docks and plenty of times at airports and on curbs in front of airports. It's usually not just goodbye for a couple of days, it's goodbye for a couple of months or far longer.

Mr. Hart had been coming and going most of the time in the two years before our deployment started. I had lived on my own as a adult for long time before we got together so adjusting to the back and forth of being together and alone for a few weeks or a couple of months at a time was probably a little easier for me than it is for some. Sure I'd shed a tear or two, but I always had things to keep me busy and I tried not to add any extra stress to the situation by getting too emotional.

When it was time to pick him up for deployment R&R, I had just learned a couple weeks before that we could go up to the gate to wait. It was an opportunity that I was not going to miss. We only had five hours notice that he was coming home two days early. I'll write another post one of these days about the chaos and stress that caused, not that we weren't thrilled that he would be home sooner than expected especially the week before Christmas.

I will say my memories of the entire R&R seem like they are filtered through a weird lens of exhaustion, anticipation, stress, dizzy happiness and apprehension of the quickly passing days. I remember sweet details of his arrival but the most painful and poignant moment came when we said goodbye.

The airport was pretty quiet that early morning. Quiet for one of the largest airports in the world that is. We were rushing and running behind. Everything was slower than it needed to be and to make things worse, the agent didn't mention that his flight was departing from another terminal. So by the time we got to the gate the boarding area was empty and the flight was probably a minute or two from closing it's doors. We only had time for a quick hug and kiss.

Of course both of us girls started crying and hugging our Daddy. Just then two female passengers walked up. We were standing there clinging to our Daddy and it was just us, the gate agent and these two women in the cavernous waiting area. When the two women realized who we were and what was happening they started crying.

It was the weirdest, sweetest, most uncomfortable and yet comforting thing ever. I felt like suddenly my little clan was acting out the tearjerker goodbye scene from Act of Valor, Army Wives or a cable holiday movie about the military family saying goodbye to their husband and dad -- the clincher scene the director knows will break his audience's hearts and bring everyone to tears. You know the scene where the LCDR Rorke says goodbye to his pregnant wife, Frank and Denise exchange their cards, Roxy begs Trevor to come back to her, etc.

There was a little part of me that got totally distracted. For a split second I wasn't in our goodbye anymore, I was locked in eye contact with this crying stranger behind us. I was realizing that our family privacy was a public spectacle. I was realizing that someone else felt our pain, our grief, our sadness. (I can't even write about this still without crying.) It was the craziest mix of compassion and violation that I have ever felt. I wasn't mad at those women for seeing us or for crying, I just felt on the spot. Suddenly, maybe for the first time, I was "Oh that poor military wife and little girl." Maybe it was that outpouring of sadness and pity that so caught me off guard and at the same time made me feel better. I still don't know what to make of that flash of mixed emotions I felt that day.

The entire scene lasted no longer than one minute. And then my Mr. Hart, our Daddy, walked through the gate and off to the second half of deployment with the two ladies right behind him. Clementine and I stood and waited, hoping to get another glimpse but the layout of the gate area made it impossible. We stood for a few minutes, she cried. We didn't really know what to do with ourselves. It was as if we'd been on a roller coaster, riding it for two straight weeks. Then the ride came to it's usual rough and screeching end, we stepped off and stood on the platform, dizzy, confused and a little lost.

We were quickly thrown back into our anonymity and no one knew who we were or what we'd just been through. We stood and stared at the plane. She cried on and off in big waves. We slowly started the long journey back to the other terminal where our car was parked. It all went by so quickly. We were back in our neighborhood within minutes due to the complete lack of traffic on the freeway and it wasn't even 7 AM yet.

There weren't many places to go and going straight home seemed a little empty and sad. So we stopped at one of the only places open at that early hour, the donut shop. It was filled with homeless people, who were obviously very happy to have somewhere warm to hang out at that early hour. They were very chatty and some a little scary.  We bought more donuts than we could possibly eat and sat in the car and ate donuts and drank chocolate milk until we felt a little sick. Then we packed up the rest and went home to face our suddenly very quiet little home without him.

Even though there were only five of us on scene, this was our most public, on-the-spot goodbye ever. That and the wailing little boy crying "Dadddyyyyyy," over and over when we first sent them off on deployment will be two of the most powerfully emotional memories I keep with me from our time as a deployed military family.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Initial Strike of Reintegration Fear Hits

image via

When Mr. Hart came home for R&R I expected him to be a little different. You hear they change, you suspect you've changed. But other than the fact he'd lost a ton of weight (not cool) I was surprised how unchanged he was. I was thrilled. I imagined that this meant in just five or six more months he would come home very much the same.

This week while talking to him on the phone the first powerful strike of reintegration fear hit me. I realized what life will probably be like when he gets back. He will have a ton of things to put back in order after he returns. He will be grumpy and tired. He'll have lost even more muscle since there's never been a drop of fat on his highly toned body, especially after being very sick after Christmas. All the things we put in place when he left for the year to protect family, belonging and such will have to be undone, plus picking up any problems that didn't get resolved while he was away or were put on hold.

Our income will change. Our home life will be different now that Clementine is living and going to school here. Interest rates will go up again on the debts we've incurred fighting to protect her. He will be severely tired after a year of poor sleep and mediocre nutrition. He'll be in "military mode" not "home mode" which means he will expect everything to function like a unit and not a home with a family with soft-hearted girls. He will be lost. He will probably feel disappointed in America after spending a year sacrificing everything to protect her. He will be grumpy and tired and lost.

I've been counting down the days of his return since the first day I learned he would deploy. First my fears were maybe I can't handle all the stress of this lead up to his deployment. Then it was maybe I can't handle saying goodbye. Next came I won't be able to deal with him being gone for so long. Then I can't bear to let him go back. Now that I've survived all those things I am standing two or three months away from his return and reintegration shaking in my boots, more fearful than ever that maybe that is the straw that will break my back or break our family's back.

I'm started to be scared to see him, because maybe I won't be able to help put him back together. Maybe I won't have any influence to help him feel loved and supported. Maybe he won't be happy being home with us and feel frustration instead. Maybe we'll end up spending years in counseling and it won't fix anything. Maybe our love won't be enough. 

All this time I have been thinking the deployment was going to be the hard part and now suddenly I think perhaps the deployment was the piece of cake and the hardest part hasn't even started yet. All this time I've just wanted him home and now that it's starting to feel like a reality I feel myself leaning back on my heels, retreating from all my excitement, hopes and dreams - retreating from him in my heart.

I guess I have to tell myself that if we've survived pre-deployment, saying goodbye, those horrible, sleepless first few weeks, sickness, stress, mid-deployment custody battles, saying goodbye again after R&R and all those months of him being so very far away, we will survive reintegration. We'll find our way, we'll tough it out, we'll have good friends and family around us lending their support. God will watch over us and continue to keep his angels watching over us.

So I will try to put these fears down. I will give them to God. I will start doing all the reading about reintegration so I'm ready and know what to expect just like I did for pre-deployment and deployment phases. And I will meditate on happy, joyful things for us upon his return. Maybe I'll call this The Summer of Joy and I'll start planning little things that will help us have a lot of fun this summer. Those are proactive things I can do. That is where I should put my energies. No reason to live in fear. Others have gone down the path before us, we can do this.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Deployment: Losing Touch With Traditions

image via

A couple months into our deployment I was talking with our daughter and the subject of one of our favorite little family "things" came up. I don't know how to better define things than as little things you do that are special to your family. We have special kisses: the strawberry kiss, the banana kiss, the chocolate chip kiss. We have special things we do together and special ways we do things that are so beautifully precious to our tribe.

In that conversation with our daughter, we realized we had totally forgotten about one of our family things since Daddy has left. It struck me a little bit hard to realize that with us apart, we would forget things we used to do together. We would forget special memories that were kept alive by our routine and our time together. That was a sad blow. I mourned that for a while.

Now that we're three-quarters through our year apart, I am finding solace in the fact that over time all families forget little memories. It's a normal part of living, of time passing. I have also been thinking about the new traditions we have created over the past year. I dare say that just for fun our little girl will use her tiny laptop to Skype Daddy when he's at his desk here working, just for fun.

She thinks it's hilarious to Skype me 10 feet away in the kitchen, although I can't bear it because the computers, due to their proximity often made horribly high pitched squealing noises. I cringe a bit in anticipation of that ear-piercing blast every time I hear the now joyous and familiar chimes of an incoming Skype call and then realize it's not Mr. Hart at all but that little cutie calling me from across the room. I dare say she'll get quite a lot of joy in doing the same to her dad.

We also have important new people in our life like Daddy Doll, who is guardian over the house when we are away. Clementine loves to laugh and scream "Oooh, disgusting," when I pretend to give Daddy Doll a kiss. Even better if I preface my kiss with "H-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i Handsome!"

She has a new tradition of doing karate over Skype with her martial arts loving Dad. They'll have great fun doing that in person. So even though we've lost a little bit of our history being apart for a year, we've added to it too. And perhaps these memories, these deployment memories, we will carry with us throughout our lives. It has been a poignant time. As I talk to Clementine and realize she is starting to forget a lot of things that happened when she was little, I imagine deployment and first grade will likely stay with her for life. She's old enough to remember and carry these memories with her.

I hope these new memories will remind all of us how strong we are, how much we love each other and that we can do hard things when requires. I hope we'll remember our sacrifice for our country and have warm, loving and patriotic feelings toward this great homeland of ours for generations to come. Yes, there have been losses to mourn during this year of deployment. Yes, it is hard, it's still difficult. But I hope we carry with us the memories of how it made us better, individually, as a family, and a world.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What Do You Say When The Navy Checks In?

image MCA

The Navy called the other day to check in on us. I guess more accurately it would be The Unit or The NOSC or something. I think they're supposed to call every month but I can only remember talking to them maybe three or four times in the past eight months. I have a very foggy memory of my husband perhaps getting a check-in call while he was here on R&R a couple of months ago and reporting that we were well.

I never know what to say when they call. I have no inclination to ask them for help.I don't even know these people.  I do believe the military is very willing to support deployed families in every way possible, but I just don't know how they would address any of our real problems right now. And it's like telling your husband's boss you have problems implying that you can't handle them, and that never seems appropriate.

So I always just seem to say something like, "We're alive and well." I don't even know what I really mean by that, other than I guess we're still standing.

How about you fellow military wives, what do you say when you get the deployment check-in call? I'd love to hear if you've asked for help or what you do say to them. How do you feel when the military calls to check in?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bonding with Gruff But Lovable Father-in-Law

image via MCA

One of the best gifts that has come to me in our deployment is a chance to bond with my father-in-law. You see, I've been scared of him since I met him. I have been tip-toeing around him for years. When I told Mr. Hart's brother how I felt a few years ago, he laughed and thought I was crazy. He said his Dad was just a big teddy bear. While I could see he might have some teddy bear qualities, I was still scared of him. And if I told my father-in-law that I was scared of him he would be flabbergasted. But I would never tell him that because I think it really would hurt his teddy bear feelings.

Here's why I've been scared of him. He's a Vietnam vet, career fighter pilot who is bullheaded and can blow off steam with a string of expletives that makes a girl's ears burn. He has never actually done that in front of me, he's too much of a gentleman for that, but I've definitely caught wind of it when he didn't know I was in the next room. He threw his personal life away as a young man for the drink and women and hurt a lot of people in the process, although he's done all he can do to make amends and clean up his act for some decades now. He's a BIG guy, tall and broad shouldered like you wouldn't believe. I'm tall but for some reason he feels like a big, intimidating giant to me. 

He lives alone and his house is definitely bachelor quarters in every way. When I am there it's like I'm the only woman living on a planet of all men. There are no other adult women in the family. So I end up hanging out with the guys, spending time by myself or mostly with the two little girls. They're darling but under 10 years old.  At FIL's BOQ (military speak for Bachelor Officer's Quarters)  there is almost no food, no decent cookware, no matching silverware and it's all just heaped mountain high in a big drawer. Everything at his house seems to be pretty much the same as it was when he and his second wife divorced. The same sheets on the beds although I do believe it's possible they've been washed at least a few times since then (haha), same decor on the walls and mostly unlived in space except for his computer desk chair and recliner in the living room.

He's losing his hearing so it's hard to communicate with him and when he talks he sort of yells, which enhances the intimidation a bit because it feels like he's yelling at you. Dealing with the VA he's just not getting the care he needs on that account. It's hardly difficult to imagine he could be losing his hearing after being surrounded by jet engines for 40 years of his life. Because we live far away and only see him maybe once a year at most (meanwhile I'm hiding from him most of the time - haha) I just had never connected with him.

I always thought I would have an amazing relationship with my inlaws. I never imaged that I would miss out on having a mother-in-law. My husband's mom died four years before we met and I have grieved her loss in my own way over the years. What a gift it would've been to have her love and support because she too was a military wife who experienced a lot of separation and had to do a lot on her own. Her husband, my husband's step-dad for most of his growing up years, was military too and from all accounts an outstanding man who passed away nine years before I met Mr. Hart. I think I would've bonded with him immediately.

So there I stood with Gruff But Lovable Gus as the only inlaw I will ever have, wondering how I would even have the courage to have a conversation with him while my man was gone for a whole year. I started trying to email him brief hellos and send him a few family photos. He would occasionally email me with a question about mailing letters or packages to his son. When things went south on a couple of issues that I needed his help with, I nervously asked.

The things that really turned the tide in our relationship were his understanding of what we were going through, his real and sincere concern for his son and most importantly his repeated assurances that I was to call him if I needed ANYTHING during deployment. I believed him. I believed that he deeply cared and worried for his son. I believed that he understood better than most what we would experience during deployment. And best of all, I believed that he cared about me and our little family and would move mountains to help me if I needed him. That made all the difference especially when he put his money where his mouth was and continually watched out for us and offered his support.

Now I have a soft spot for that big teddy bear that I will hold dear to me all of my life. I haven't seen him in in almost two years now, but I look forward to seeing him again. I miss him and have wanted to go for a visit for some time now but it just hasn't been possible or practical. Hopefully when my husband returns we'll have a chance to go and spend a few weeks there and I will have a chance to enjoy my budding relationship with my father-in-law in person. You just never know what blessings will come during a deployment. This was a good one.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Time To Breath Together Before He Deploys

In the crazy, busy, stressful days right before deployment, we found it completely necessary for our individual and family sanity for Daddy and all of us to take a break and stop rushing around for a few hours and just have some fun, relax and do something different.

The To Do list before deployment is massive and it's probably best to just realize it's never all going to get done before he leaves. We all make a good effort and get most of it done, but it's never going to all be perfectly arranged before he leaves. It's just not possible for us to control so many environments, other people, situations and tasks. We can't slow down the hands of time either and those days feel so rushed with the sense of a ticking countdown clock beating in your ears every waking minute.

So despite the fact that we felt so rushed and panicked, we learned that taking two, three or five hours to just stop all the craziness and go play and picnic on the beach or go to a movie or a long walk was just what we needed. Being out in nature seemed to be the very best thing we could do. It was so good to turn down the building anxiety and reconnect with each other. It relaxed us all, helped us feed that desperate need for together time before he left and gave us all a chance to collect ourselves before we jumped back on the high-speed, chaotic pre-deployment hamster wheel.

I am so glad we did, even though it seemed so scary to stop everything and not be crossing things off the To Do list every moment of every day before he left. The memory of the intense stress, fear, frustration and exhaustion have faded some, but I carry in my heart the sweet memories of those moments we took to love and enjoy each other, to calm the freak down and just be together. Those are the moments I will always remember and cherish most about our days before he left.

So the moral of this story is, when things get crazy stressful, it okay, in fact it's the best thing you can do, to slow down, take a breath, be in nature and spent time with your nearest and dearest. It will give you energy to continue the journey and give you sweet memories to cherish as you continue down challenging roads.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own

image via

When I looked ahead and anticipated how I could best THRIVE through deployment I started making lists of things I could do or had to look forward to during that time. I thought if I stayed busy it would help the time go by. I thought if I have all this free time I should accomplish some big things. I thought if I was this free of most of my major commitments I should do some big, fantastic things.

On my list were: spend time with friends, try to plan something with someone every week, go out on weekends, visit my family, take classes, start a business, get super fit. Oh, I had plenty to keep myself busy and to keep my mind off all the scary worries of deployment.

I thought if I had my mind in the right place, I would be able to accomplish anything I wanted to. I learned very quickly that it would not be that easy. Once I drove home from saying goodbye to Mr. Hart and watching his plane fly away, I don't remember much that first week. I remember unloading the car and sleeping a lot. I was exhausted. The anxiety alone was exhausting but add in all we had to accomplish in those last few days and it was easy to see why I crashed when I got back. I didn't leave the house much, didn't even get dressed the first few days. But this was sort of the case the first day or two of every big trip Mr. Hart had left on. Once all the getting him out the door had happened, I usually took a couple of days to get back to normal.

I quickly realized that getting up to speed this time was not going to be a day or two but a bit longer. We had been through an extraordinarily stressful time the eight weeks leading up to his deployment that entailed much more than just getting him ready to go. I also quickly learned that even though I wanted to go gangbusters accomplishing things that my body had a completely different idea. While I was dealing with the conscious stress pretty well, my body was going through all the stress in it's own way. And I had very little control over it.

Within days I was sick. Then I couldn't sleep. I wouldn't fall asleep until 1 or 2 in the morning. Then if anything woke me up, I could not go back to sleep.That usually happened between four and five in the morning. On top of that I started having nightmares. You might think I was having nightmares about something happening to Mr. Hart, but I didn't. I was having nightmares about what would happen if everything came crumbling down around me here at home. In my waking hours I realized that although I didn't feel it consciously, my subconscious was very actively freaking out. While I tried to talk to my subconscious, it had to work through all the stress and worry in it's own way and time. This was all a huge surprise to me. I thought a positive attitude could overcome anything in my life.

The lack of sleep began to mess with my head when I was conscious. I fumbled over simple sentences, couldn't remember things like where I put my keys and I forgot about things on the calendar. I locked myself out of the house, car or both several times in the first weeks he was gone. In my entire life I have probably locked myself out of a car or house only three times. This was beginning to be a regular event for me.

While I was suffering from the body's will to control itself in its own way, I started benefiting from it's regulatory and balancing abilities. Eventually I was so tired that I started sleeping a lot. At some point my body had to quit fighting itself and shut down. It was amazing how quickly I began to feel better, my head was clearer and I started feeling like my old self.

I learned a big lesson those weeks that despite our best plans and expectations, sometimes we can't know what we can expect from our bodies. They need time, attention and nurturing and that doesn't always fit into our plans - especially in pre-deployment mode. It was a big lesson in learning to go with the flow of things. I was not going to be super woman right out of the gates. I was mourning a lot of things and accepting many scary new possibilities into my life. There was a huge amount of responsibility suddenly heaped on my shoulders. My body and my subconscious needed time to catch up.

Once I relaxed and allowed that to happen, with a little time things got much better. But it took a good eight weeks to fully pass through this phase. This is definitely something I didn't expect. Something else I didn't expect was that this would come back in varying cycles again and again. I would continue to experience bouts of sleeplessness followed by spells of intense tiredness and needing to sleep more than normal.  Family problems, preparing for R&R, recovering from R&R, times I knew he was traveling, moments like these often lead to a return to this crazy cycle but in much smaller spells thank goodness.

I hope if you are reading this and facing deployment or any other big upheavals in your regular daily life that you will give your mind, body and spirit time to get caught up with each other and adjust over time. Don't be too hard on yourself but listen to yourself and do what it is you feel you need to keep things in balance as much as possible. I send you my prayers for the challenges in your journey and for an abundance of good health and well-being.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Most Difficult Pre-Deployment Goodbye

image by OLX

Watching Mr. Hart and his daughter say goodbye was definitely the biggest sobfest I had before he deployed. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. It was the day before he deployed and even though we'd been with him for a week on base while he did final preparations, we'd hardly seen him. Because he'd been in training and exercises the past seven months he hadn't even started most of the pre-deployment homework he needed to do. So he was working from seven in the morning until two or three the next morning each day. It was rugged and really taking a toll on him and we were missing him and wanting desperately to spend time with him.

The day before he deployed his daughter was to visit her mother, so we had to say goodbye just before I left to make the long drive to take her to mom. I would be back on base in a few hours after I took her back and maybe have a few more minutes with Daddy before he left the next day. We went to meet Daddy at the office where he had been working and we all went outside to the picnic tables for a little privacy. We took some photos and then I just let the two of them spend some time together. I went a little way off and as they clung to each other I turned into a bucket of tears.

I took a bunch of photos of them sitting there on the picnic bench, her on his lap. She was hiding her face under her favorite blanket and just curled up in her Daddy's arms. They didn't talk, except for a few parting words Daddy tried to instill in his girl's heart before saying goodbye. They just held each other and I stood across the courtyard and cried and took pictures of them. She was so peaceful that she fell asleep in his arms for a few minutes and he sat, hunched over with his face on hers.

When it was time to go they said goodbye and she cried. I think his heart was breaking, thinking about missing an entire year of her life. He walked us to the car, got us settled and then headed back inside. As we drove away she was full of questions about what Dad was doing and where he was going even though we'd talked through all those questions time and time again. Then she said, "How will Daddy get home if we took his car? How will he get back to us?"

That was not a question I was expecting but realizing what was going through her head tore me up. I was so happy to be able to assure her that we would pick Daddy up and that he didn't need his car right now. I told her that she and I would come and meet Daddy and have a great celebration when he came home next summer. She seemed relieved although understanding how long it would be until next summer was impossible for her to register.

We drove across the base and went to the park for a few minutes, playing with kids we'd met during the week. It was somehow comforting to sit with other military wives and kids who knew what we were feeling. Then it was time to make that long drive to take her to her mom knowing that things wouldn't feel normal again for a long, long time. I wondered how she would handle the very long year ahead of us.

More than half way through now I am happy to say that even though she misses her Dad intensely, she has been a fantastic support to him. She has written piles of letters and drawn lots of pictures. She has helped with care packages, left voicemails for him and sent lots of online messages filled with every little girly emoticon you could imagine: sunshines, squirrels, hearts, stars, teddy bears, smiley faces, kissy lips and too many XOXOs to count. She's been able to Skype with her Dad, had a great R&R with him and has really taken on the challenge "We can do it." I am super proud of her and I can't wait to cry again when I see the two of them arm in arm in just a few months. How I love those two and will never forget that day, watching them say goodbye to each other.