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OPINION

The inspiring military family reunions actually hurt troops

By DAVID KIERAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: February 10, 2020

The reality-TV-style reunion between a recently returned soldier and his family during the State of the Union address Tuesday has focused attention on the experiences of military families, realities that The Washington Post’s Alex Horton points out are often obscured by feel-good media coverage and social media posts.

In truth, the repeated cycle of deployments and returns that has marked the United States’ wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere has been psychologically trying for military families, and the Defense Department has struggled to provide them with the support they need. A service member returning home, Horton writes, is accompanied by a “mosaic of chaos, relief, confusion and anger.” More importantly, he points out that the homecoming “is only the beginning of weeks or months of work, when the service member decompresses and struggles to adjust to a new paradigm.”

Our love of these made-for-social media reunions has occluded these struggles, but the U.S. Army itself has been aware of them since early in the Iraq War. Researchers’ 2005 recognition that soldiers who returned with seemingly few challenges might subsequently encounter psychological issues set in motion in an ambitious effort to develop a program to help soldiers readjust. The development of the Army’s Post-Deployment Health Reassessment and the Battlemind psycho-education program 2005 and 2006 marked a key moment in the military’s growing awareness of the psychological toll that these conflicts were taking on troops, and of the need to not simply celebrate soldier homecomings but attend to service members’ needs in the months that follow.

Studying soldier readjustment and its effect on families was a significant step forward for the military.

Although there has been some research on the impact of deployments on families during the Second World War, it wasn’t until after Vietnam that the military saw this as a serious concern. Many Vietnam veterans recall their return as a sort of whiplash — leaving Southeast Asia on an airplane, arriving in the United States to be discharged and returning home to communities that hardly understood their experiences. Indeed, the climate of publicly celebrated returns stems from the widespread sentiment that Vietnam veterans were never properly welcomed home. With the shift to the all-volunteer military, however, military leaders and researchers became more interested in studying how soldiers experienced deployments and, because more soldiers had partners and children, how those deployments affected families. Such research, the Army understood, was crucial to recruiting and retaining soldiers.

The Navy, for example, studied how sailors and their families withstood separation during cruises. As the Army deployed soldiers to the Balkans, Somalia and the Middle East throughout the 1990s, researchers from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), the Army’s medical research unit, surveyed them to find out what caused them stress. Unsurprisingly, being separated from their families was near the top of the list.

This awareness, and the research capacity that WRAIR developed, shaped researchers’ approach to studying soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet while they expected that these deployments would result in psychological challenges for many soldiers, exactly how — and when — those issues manifested surprised them, generating new ways of studying and caring for returning troops.

In 2004, WRAIR psychologists Amy Adler and Col. Paul Bliese traveled to Pisa, Italy, to assess the mental health of members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, a unit that had just finished a year-long deployment to Iraq. Using a document called the Post-Deployment Health Assessment, they surveyed these soldiers for depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and other conditions that might follow a deployment. Surprisingly, few of the soldiers reported any symptoms. At a time when increasing attention was being paid to the psychological toll of the Iraq War, this unit, at least, seemed to have returned from a lengthy, difficult deployment with few issues.

A few months later, however, a competing study found something seemingly contradictory: A significantly higher percentage of the soldiers tested “met the screening criteria for major depression, PTSD or alcohol misuse ... after deployment than before deployment.”

This finding compelled the researchers to administer another survey to members of the 173rd, who by this point had been home for about three months, the same amount of time as those observed in the other study. Their findings stunned them: Soldier reports of some symptoms had tripled; others had quintupled.

This finding led to the conclusion that soldiers who had just returned from a difficult deployment, reuniting joyfully with their families and having had no chance to readjust to non-deployment life were, in fact, symptom-free — but it didn’t mean they were out of the woods. The reality, Adler and Bliese concluded, was that symptoms often took time to manifest.

After the initial euphoria of homecoming wore off and soldiers began to return to the mundane activities of everyday life and process their experiences, some began to experience symptoms: They might have trouble relating to their children, fight with their partners over seemingly insignificant issues, become anxious in crowded spaces, or find their sleep disturbed. By screening soldiers only when they returned, the Army was potentially missing a lot of people who might need help.

This recognition quickly prompted action. Within days, the Defense Department had mandated that soldiers be screened again after 90 days, using a new document called the Post-Deployment Health Reassessment, and provided help to find the right care stream to ease their readjustment. In the next year, WRAIR researchers also developed the Battlemind program, a training that helped soldiers understand that the behaviors required to successfully deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan might prove unhealthy at home. For example, returning troops were taught that while in a combat zone, a soldier needed to control their emotions. At home, however, the inability to share how one was feeling could cause strain in a relationship.

Through this program, which the Army validated in a scientific study, soldiers learned that the need to readjust was inevitable but almost always possible; just as they had successfully adapted to a combat environment, most soldiers would in a short time readapt to life in the United States. But the program also taught participants that some veterans might need therapy or medication to regain their previous level of mental health.

The program, the Army found, was a rousing success. It helped soldiers understand why they were feeling as they did, that their symptoms would usually quickly dissipate and to learn that sometimes seeking help is appropriate. Within a few years, the Army had rolled out another version of Battlemind, this one aimed at partners who might have struggled while their loved one was deployed or after they returned.

The Army’s psychological research revealed that if reunions “in base gyms or installation buildings” marked the end of a deployment, they might also mark the beginning of that deployment’s effect on a soldier and their family. That knowledge, in turn, generated a fast and vigorous effort to help soldiers understand those effects, teach them how to manage them and encourage them to seek help.

Yet this hasn’t changed our public narrative about soldiers returning to their families. If anything, social media has intensified our sense that these are triumphant, heartwarming moments that will leave families bathed in happiness. But there is a real danger to this narrative: Soldiers and families — and all of us — need to know that deployment-related challenges might creep up in the months after returning home.

Such challenges are to be expected, and most service members and families quickly readjust, while some might need help to do so. What all service members and families need, however, is continued support after deployments. That’s what makes our fascination with the moment of reunion so pernicious. Having decided that soldiers are happily reunited with their loved ones and that the moment of danger has passed, we, too, easily tune out, shielded from the long-term effects of a nation’s embrace of perpetual war and disengaged from the challenges it might produce for those who endure it.

David Kieran is assistant professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College and author of “Signature Wounds: The Untold Story of the Military’s Mental Health Crisis.”

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