DAYTON, Ohio — Three-year-old Levi Marshall pressed his nose to the window when his father went for a jog for the first time since coming home from Afghanistan. “Daddy, don’t leave!” Levi wailed.
He had no way of knowing whether his father, Capt. David Marshall of the Ohio Army National Guard, would be coming home in another hour or would vanish from his life for another year.
“He fears that I will leave again,” observed Marshall, who recently returned home to Beavercreek after a year-long deployment in Kabul as an intelligence officer for the Columbus-based Task Force 1-134 Field Artillery Regiment.
It’s a scene being played out in households throughout the country as the war in Afghanistan winds down. Even the happiest families face challenges after an extended deployment, experts say. “Challenges come with any long separation,” said Bill Wall, program manager of The Freedom Center at the Dayton VA Medical Center, which serves as a post-deployment clinic for veterans. “Things have changed in the veteran’s role and responsibilities, and kids have learned new patterns of behavior.”
Despite Levi’s anxiety, the homecoming has gone smoother than Marshall and his wife Grace expected. When Marshall stepped off the plane at Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus on Sept. 9, he was ambushed by Levi and his three older children — Bryn, 9, Wyatt, 8, and Aria, 6. The boys wore khaki print; the girls sported matching “Daddy is my Hero” T-shirts. Even in the euphoria of the moment, Grace predicted, “It will be a transition for the kids to accept him as an authority figure again.”
Yet by last week — Marshall’s second week back at his job as an intelligence analyst at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — the family seemed to have slipped back into its old rhythms as comfortably as a pair of footed pajamas. The kids beg to “wrestle with Daddy” while Grace consults Dave about spices for her black bean soup. “He likes to tweak my meals,” she explained.
On the whole, Marshall said, “The kids took the discipline well, and I didn’t feel like I had any trouble stepping back into that role. At times, I felt like they should be obeying quicker, as I was used to be obeyed immediately as an officer.”
That’s a common tendency for veterans adjusting to civilian life, Wall said: “There’s a temptation to say, ‘I’m back, I’m the boss, and you can’t do that.’ There’s a big difference between the military culture of giving orders and the civilian world. The more rigid you are, the harder it will be, and the more flexible, the better. That’s true whether it’s family relationships or going back to your old job. The culture is going to shift.”
For the Marshall family, that cultural shift has been overwhelmingly positive. Grace relishes the return of her helpmate and her soulmate as she manages a household of four lively children. “It has gotten a lot easier,” she said. “Levi is doing much better. His behavior is better. He goes to bed on time. It was harder to keep control as a single mother. Just Dave’s presence helps with the discipline.”
Most of all, she said, “I love having my husband at home to hang out with.”
The couple, who met as undergrads at Cedarville College, feel closer than ever. “Before Dave left, he was working two jobs and working on his master’s degree. At times, we were taking each other for granted.”
No longer. “If you aren’t growing closer together during deployment, you’re growing apart,” Dave said.
Grace, who is from Illinois, has no family in town. Their friends at Kemp Road Baptist Church in Beavercreek, stepped in to fill the gap, bringing meals and providing babysitters. “That eased my mind a lot, knowing that they were looking out for my wife,” Marshall said. “People from our church were here twice a week. They stayed with the kids when Grace had doctor appointments.”
The low point, for Grace, was a long stretch when she was severely ill with bronchitis, with one of the kids recovering from pneumonia. She told herself, “I don’t know what I am going to do. I’m physically incapable of taking care of these kids.”
But their church stepped in once again, with several women coming over every day and two teenaged girls spending the night. Grace woke up in the middle of the night, shaking all over, her head splitting. She even flirted with the idea of calling 911. “I was fantasizing about a morphine drip, hot blankets, and a nurse taking care of me.”
Dave, meanwhile, was working 12-hour days, seven days a week. At the end of the day, there was little time or energy for anything but Bible study. “I do feel good about what we were able to accomplish there,” he said. “As a whole, our unit traveled thousands of miles and transported hundreds of people around the whole country. I personally was able to work at making sure our people were safe and had the best information for their respective missions.”
Marshall said he never felt in danger, “although tensions were high during the month of Ramadan due to the increase in Afghan soldiers and police officers attacking U.S. servicemen. Shortly after I left, a child suicide bomber blew himself up on a route that I used to walk routinely. I did not worry about returning to my family, knowing that God would either protect me or provide for my family.”
Marshall feels blessed, coming home to a good job, a supportive boss, and a healthy family. “The majority of our personnel did not suffer either PTSD or a traumatic brain injuring during the deployment,” he said.
Family relationships can be severely strained if a veteran is suffering from PTSD or a TBI, according to Lance Woodward, director of Greene County Veterans’ Services. “You could be dealing with isolation or suicidal thoughts,” he said. “That’s something we have seen a lot in the past few years.”
Kids know when something isn’t right, Woodward added, even if they know the meaning of PTSD or TBI. “They tell us, ‘Mommy and Daddy aren’t the same.’ With a TBI, you can tell significant trauma by their body language. When they left they were this vibrant person and they’re in a vacuum. There’s this rattling in their head. There are so many avenues to get help and our office is one of them.”
Now that he’s home, Marshall plans to complete his master’s degree in military studies. “One of the best things is just having free time,” he said. After missing so many milestones, he was home when Aria took her first bike ride without training wheels.
“We all quickly adjusted and I felt like I was fully into my parental role within the first two weeks of being back,” he said.
Even little Levi may be getting the picture. The other day, his face lit up as he asked his mother, “Daddy’s going to live here?”