Return and Reunion programs aim to ease transition
When Navy Lt. Cmdr. Scott Wilmot left aboard the USS Kitty Hawk last year for Iraq, his 6-year-old daughter Melissa wasn’t allowed to touch the kitchen knives.
Melissa, said mother Jodi Wilmot, now can make her own peanut butter sandwiches — using a knife.
It’s a small difference, but one of many to which Scott Wilmot will need to adapt when he returns to his family this week.
In the final days before the USS Kitty Hawk and its air wing and escort ships — some 6,000 people — return, Fleet and Family Support centers at the Yokosuka and Atsugi Navy bases have been holding workshops to help families prepare for the homecoming.
Return and Reunion programs remind servicemembers and spouses that there might be some readjustment in store after the welcome-home kisses.
“Even for the most seasoned spouse, it helps to refresh the idea: We all need to be patient with each other a little while and communicate really well,” said Kim Ottmers-Orman, who heads the Return and Reunion committee at Atsugi Naval Air Facility.
Small changes, such as a child learning to use a knife, may not have been communicated. And the family workload probably has shifted.
“They have to kind of rebalance,” Ottmers-Orman said. “Usually the servicemember wants to feel involved. There’s a real adjustment.”
Small children might not remember or might resent a parent who has been absent. A teenager may now have a driver’s license or a new boyfriend or shocking green hair.
Return and Reunion programs are created to help servicemembers gradually return to normal lives, said Cathy Adams-Bomar, director of Yokosuka’s Fleet and Family Support Center.
“We want to make sure that it isn’t a ‘change of command’ at home when the deployed sailor returns,” Adams-Bomar said. “It’s about getting that absent parent or partner back into the family in a healthy way.”
Becky Tan has played the roles of mother and father during her husband’s deployments before. This is the sixth since she married Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Tan, an aviation mechanic.
“I have to do all the discipline,” she said. “I’m wearing the pants right now.”
Becky is prepping her two children for their father’s return. She’ll give him some space when he returns to catch up, she said. She’s also using tips from the brochures from the support center to watch for trouble signs from her kids.
“They give the symptoms for different ages and what to expect,” the Navy wife said.
It helps that she’s a former sailor. She understands her husband’s unusual lifestyle and job, which, she said, not all spouses can do, particularly if the marriage isn’t very old. In that case, both parties may face adjustments.
“Maybe there was a marriage right before the sailor deployed, or maybe there is a new kid when they get back,” Bomar-Adams said. “Maybe a sailor who was married or in a relationship when they left is now single. Those are things that need to be addressed.”
To help servicemembers before they return, the support centers send teams of counselors to ships. The teams meet with sailors and emphasize communication and “re-negotiation” of household duties.
Both spouses “face the issue of re-integration,” said Richard Smith, acting supervisor of the Counseling, Advocacy and Prevention Division of Atsugi’s support center. “They struggle with how it used to be and how it is now.”
“How many of you have started a new exercise program?” Debbie Foster, head of the Atsugi center, asks several hundred spouses during a Return and Reunion workshop at Atsugi last week. “Your routine is not normal to your servicemember.”
Everyday events now might come as surprises. Rooms have been redecorated or hairstyles changed. Little things add up to stress.
Cmdr. Gary Carr, command chaplain aboard the Kitty Hawk, recommends not discussing money for the first three days and laughing off as much of the shock as possible.
Post-deployment stress has been blamed for domestic violence. In some cases in the past, it also may have led to murder. Four soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., are accused of killing their wives last summer after returning from Afghanistan. Three eventually killed themselves and one is facing murder charges. Army investigators have blamed the killings on stress and previous marital discord, Army officials said.
The Army now has a detailed post-deployment program that includes chaplain-sponsored briefings for soldiers about to return from combat zones. Spouses also receive special briefings and soldiers receive follow-ups a few months later, said Lt. Col. Mark Samisch, public affairs officer for U.S. Army Pacific.
Statistically, said Atsugi’s Smith, younger couples or those married for the shortest time have the most problems after a deployment. Such problems don’t always lead to violence, but domestic violence does often increase after a deployment, he said.
Resentment also can complicate a couple’s readjustment. A servicemember, for instance, might feel a spouse is lucky to have avoided the hardships of deployment, while the spouse feels the servicemember doesn’t appreciate how much work he or she faced in the servicemember’s absence.
To help couples mop up some of the problems that can spill over after the post-deployment honeymoon, support centers will offer courses on anger management and marital counseling a few weeks after the Kitty Hawk returns.
What about sex?
Many people assume, Ottmers-Orman said, that R&R workshops will tell them to avoid sex for a few days after their spouse returns.
That’s not the case.
“We are in no way going to be discouraging people from having sex. That is not our goal,” she said.
But she does recommend people be open and discuss their feelings about physical and emotional intimacy. Men and women might have different ideas and feelings about the first night back, she adds.
Planning the first day and night isn’t easy. Spouses might not know the servicemember’s mood. There, again, communication is essential.
Atsugi’s R&R committee prepared a video that shows a servicemember and his wife before their reunion.
He can’t wait to get home and melt into the sofa.
She has a welcome-home party already waiting.
It’s a disaster in the making that could have been avoided with better communication.
Support centers also provide classes for spouses, and after the ship returns, for couples. And as an outreach to Japanese spouses, all of the courses and materials are available in translation.
Those efforts have led to a 300 percent increase in participation by foreign-born spouses, officials at support centers said.
“Asking for help is a sign of strength,” said Adams-Bomar. “It’s never an easy cruise, and this one will be no different.”
For single sailors, coming back to port may not really be coming home. It can be a time of isolation and even depression, said Carr.
“With some time off, it is important to make the most of tours offered by [Morale, Welfare and Recreation and Information, Tours and Travel],” he said.
Keep in mind …
• Servicemembers might want to be spontaneous and free-spending after the regimented existence at sea.• They might have trouble sleeping or seem a little different for a while.• Conversations might feel forced or awkward at first.• There might be fears of infidelity or other insecurities from servicemembers and spouses.• Watch for complete loss of interest, lack of appetite or other signs of depression.
Easing the transition
• Don’t delve into big problems, either pre-existing or new, for a few days.• Be flexible, everyone is different.• Acknowledge the work and sacrifice each person made.• Servicemembers should step back into their families carefully. The family has been functioning without them. That can also bring some frustrations — some servicemembers feel a little hurt that the family could survive without them.• Encourage servicemembers to express their feelings, good and bad, but don’t grill them about their experiences.— Fleet and Family Support Center, Atsugi
According to Cmdr. Gary Carr, command chaplain aboard the Kitty Hawk, there’s no one way to ease the transition, except patience and acceptance that life has changed for everyone. He offers these do’s and don’ts:
• Make the first response positive. If things seem really different at home, have a good laugh and realize that you are learning a whole new side to your loved ones.• Put deep financial discussions on hold for 72 hours.• If you are married, give your spouse and children your primary time and attention. Hold off on inviting your mom and dad to stay at your house. Take time with each child and do something that shows how important they are to you.