Welcoming back vets for the holidays

This will be the first Thanksgiving at home in a while for a few thousand Afghanistan veterans.

While holidays are often a joyous occasion, it can sometimes take a different direction for some veterans. This time of year could be a painful reminder of that mission, the friends they made and the ones they left behind.

Arizona State University instructor and former military spouse M. Jennifer Brougham has a primer on how to make veterans feel comfortable on Thanksgiving and what to avoid around the table.

For years, Brougham has been discussing these topics in a class titled “Military Family Systems in a Democracy” in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. She recently spoke to ASU News on this timely topic, offering helpful hints to spouses, hosts, family members and friends who are hosting recent Afghanistan veterans who will be home for the holidays.

Woman with brown hair and glasses

M. Jennifer Brougham

Question: We’re about to head into the holiday season, and military members, including recent veterans of the Afghanistan conflict, will be home for the first time in a while. What kind of expectations should families have when their loved ones come back? 

Answer: Holidays for most individuals bring about some unrealistic expectations. When there is a loved one returning from a long deployment and going to be there for the holidays, there is going to be a cause for celebration, relief and being reunited as a family. Everyone will have a “picture” in their mind on how this reunion will be. 

Depending on the age, children will have different responses. As an example, a young child may be very shy because of not having had Mom/Dad around. This may be very disappointing to the parent hoping for the child to greet them with running to them. 

Transition for the families will occur but may differ whether the individual is active-duty military, reservist or returning from multiple tours to Afghanistan. Let me explain: Active-duty military personnel may have had some short tours, or several deployments depending on years of service, so have experience in the transition process. This is a full-time career choice. Also, the active duty have access to resources. 

Although a person going into the reserves understands there may be deployments involved, there may not be the family understanding of the reality of role changes. Certainly, not one size fits all because every family unit handles life circumstances differently, but this is just an overview of some consideration to what may be happening within a family unit. It will be an adjustment, and patience will be paramount on everyone’s part. 

Q: What are the emotions some of these military members and veterans will experience, and what are the signs we should be looking for? 

A: There is no doubt an individual within a combat zone is going to have experiences impacting their life. There is a closeness between individuals sharing combat because this is a shared experience where there is an understanding without having to explain. The military person has spent months, years, having to live in the state of hypervigilance. The responsibilities within a war zone is paramount. There are sights and sounds locked into a memory, loss of buddies and some experiences no one understands the depth of. ...

There is the loss of privacy, comfortable bed, choice of food and, of course, missing their families and friends. The individuals are looking forward to their return, and this leads us right back to the first question, different expectations by the returning military person and the family. Roles have changed and may not slip back to what once was the routine of the family. 

The individual may not want to share any of the experiences or (may be) not able to express themselves. It is important to notice signs of isolation and difficulty integrating with family and friends. I would encourage anyone to seek professional help for their loved one if there are signs of concern. 

Q: Some in the media have speculated that a high number of veterans of the Afghanistan War might be thinking they didn’t accomplish their mission, which may lead to depression and angst. What are your thoughts? 

A: I (consider) it unfair to try to speculate what an individual is thinking. The goal was to remove terrorists and keep our country safe. The hope was to set up the country with a democracy; this was a political decision. Our men/women who serve received orders and without question followed their oath and duty to leave everything behind to go to a war zone. And, for 20 years, they did exactly the mission — protect our country and keep us safe. The individuals served, died for our country to the last days and many left with permanent disabilities — physical, emotional and psychological.

I am quite sure each military person has mixed emotions. 

My understanding is part of leaving Afghanistan was leaving the people, especially the interpreters who helped us over the years and many died with our men/women. 

Q: So how do adults convey this sensitive information to their children? 

A: Children are sensitive to their environment and parental reaction. Children will be excited but may also have anxiety about the change going to happen. I think it is important to have conversations with the child/children before the actual time the person comes home, in a way developmentally appropriate for the age. I can give a short example. When my daughter was 2½ years old, her dad went on a short tour to Korea. We kept his picture out, talked about him and she sent pictures she drew. She was 3½ years old when he came home. We talked about (how) Daddy may be tired and not want to play right away. Time was given to the two of them so they could get to know each other. He left a toddler and came home to a preschooler. 

If someone is returning home with a disability, loss of a limb, head injury — there needs to be preparation. I would suggest working with a professional. This is going to be an overwhelming adjustment for everyone. There is available help through military family resources. 

Death of a parent for any child is a loss having some feeling abandoned. Grief appears in different ways and times. Again, I encourage seeking professional advice. 

Q: I assume these big life transitions are a big portion of what you discuss in your class, FAS 410: Military Family Systems in a Democracy? 

A: Military life is a constant transition, so we spend a great deal of time on the topic of transitions in our class. The class is designed to increase the understanding of military life during the time serving afterwards. Since everyone at some point will come across active duty, reservists, retired or vets, the class is designed around multiple disciplines of study. I have had family life, psychology, business, nursing (and) education majors, and some ROTC cadets in the class. I have also had active duty, vets, students who are from a military family and students without any connection to the military. Here are some of the topics we cover in class:

  • Moving every three years or less.
  • Children and social development with moving.
  • Military culture. 
  • Deployments (this includes what must be done prior to leaving). 
  • Trauma (physical, emotional and psychological). 
  • PTSD. 
  • Medical care for active duty, their families and vets. 
  • History of women in the military. 
  • Issues within the military. 

Our society is stronger because of the men and women choosing now to serve our nation. For us to show our gratitude, we need to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a part of our military, present or former, and be there to support, with our wanting better resources for physical, mental, emotional health and for families.

Top photo courtesy of Pexels.com

Marshall Terrill
marshall.terrill@asu.edu