Miss City Discovers: The Shifting Soldier and Family Dynamic

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Shifting Soldier and Family Dynamic

Often our most memorable and moving experiences are those that happen to others. Standing in the airport is a mother with a secret and two unsuspecting, young boys. In just a few short moments, a memory will unfold, remaining engraved in their minds, forever. No doubt they wonder, “An airport, why are we here?” “Daddy is on his way home.” Their eyes light up. As the three anxious family members stand waiting at the gate, an announcement plays overhead. “Arriving today in a few moments is Captain Mark Tempel. He hasn’t seen his family in nine months.” His family stands huddled, their faces filled with optimism. Curious onlookers walk by, glancing at the tearing mother and restless boys. The bystanders tilt their heads and for a moment just stand and look. They don’t want to miss this. Their faces can’t help but form an encouraging smile. The gate opens. Sharp intakes of breath. Everyone is still. Everyone is waiting. As passengers appear, entering the airport from the plane, they have tears in their eyes. “He’s coming! He’s coming!” they say. The anticipation is unbearable. Finally he emerges, handsome, sun drenched and draped in full military dress. He takes two steps towards his family with open arms. They all unite in hysterics, hugging and kissing and living. Eyes squeezed shut, but their tears are so strong, they burst through. Everyone in the airport is still, with a hand to their heart, as they begin to cry themselves. It is the happiest moment to witness.  The reunification of a family that has been missing such an important piece for so long. People stand as if in a trance. No one wants to walk away. It is too special. Two sons, with uncontrollable tears, will not let go of their dad. All the boys can hear, see, feel is their father. Nothing else exists. No words are spoken; there is no time for that. All they want to do is soak up that feeling of togetherness that had been absent for so long. After being 6,000 miles from his family, Captain Tempel can once again hold his most precious treasures.
Soldiers fighting abroad in the army, protecting the United States with their lives, often simultaneously leave a family back on the home front. This has been a part of American life since 1914 in World War I. However, in the modern world, technology has allowed the relationship between a soldier and their family to change considerably.
Rewind to 1945. A soldier stares out the window of a plane with the few others who are lucky to be coming home alive, on a plane rather than a boat, no less. His family stands on the tarmac, along with the entire town, praying that their father will be one of the men who steps off the plane. To their utter shock, he is not only home, but also being honored with a purple heart for bravery. All of the families are told they may reunite with their loved ones after they accept their medals. Cameras are flashing, reporters scribbling notes, and they wait with bated breath as finally He goes up to accept his medal and say a few words. But his high school sweetheart, and now wife, just cannot wait. Captured on grainy film, as this soldier stands at the podium, airplane behind him, speaking to the country, his wife runs up to him, departing from the enthusiastic crowd, throwing her arms around him in a loving embrace. At first, he is taken aback. But in seconds, the world seems to dissolve around them as he realizes that he is finally home with the love of his life.  
On both of those days, a family’s breath-taking love for each other radiated across a moment, and moved us all. There was a binding energy that connected everyone, proof that people are not completely separate individuals. It seems so simple reflecting back, but it’s this interconnectedness and the ability of humankind to share love in an unexpected circumstance that is the core of what moves our world.
The means of communication today, not to mention the accessibility and convenience, are drastically different from past American wars. Using World War II as a comparison point, support services for families with loved ones fighting abroad have increased, and the timeliness of notification of injury or death is precise and organized. It is noteworthy to mention those soldiers whose sole job is to notify the families of a loved ones passing. A soldier’s homecoming has also changed since World War II. Rather than caught by the surprise of a husband returning after serving in the military for months, now a soldier can Skype their child the morning they are returning home. The flight from Iraq to New York City is 12 hours. Returning home from Germany during WWII could take weeks by boat, offering soldiers time to readjust as much as possible before entering back into life in America. Regardless of the continually changing technology, a brave and heroic soldier’s homecoming still captures the same emotion, whether it is 1945 or 2013.
During World War II, soldiers very rarely could use telephones to communicate with their families back home. Letter writing was practically the only option. Today, soldiers still use postal mail to communicate with their families; intriguingly, all the mail is first sent to New York City, and then distributed around the country. Email is frequently used, as many soldiers actually bring their personal laptops to Iraq. There are a number of DSN (Defense Switched Network) phone centers and AT&T phone tents located throughout U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. A soldier is usually allowed free 15-minute "morale calls" to call family back home. Webcam and video instant messaging, the most commonly used being Skype, is also an option of communication. However, recently these privileges have been scaled back due to security reasons. After speaking to one Israeli soldier who served in the last five years, I was told that although all of these options are made available to him, there is a sense of loneliness and isolation that is very difficult to shake. He mentioned that although he could speak to his girlfriend on the phone, he felt as if he were on a different planet, and that there was no solace in those short conversations, just increasing anxiety over returning home.
One of the largest differences between today and WWII is the age of enlisters, and in turn, the changing family dynamic of soldiers. The average age of enlisters is 21.3 years old versus the average age of 26 years old during WWII. Today, the maximum enlistment age is 35 years old compared to 45 years old in WWII. Since families were started at a much younger age during the 1940s (mothers on average for their first child were 25, while today it is 30), many soldiers today do not leave their own nuclear families behind; rather, parents are sending their children to war. Now that women are older as they get pregnant, and soldiers are younger as they enlist in the military, the family dynamic of leaving children of soldiers behind has significantly changed, and has turned more towards girlfriends/boyfriends and mothers/fathers left praying for their loved ones.
The amount of support services that families on the home front receive with a family member serving abroad has increased remarkably since World War Two. Money management services offer classes on money management, financial planning and insurance and consumer counseling, soldiers learn how to eliminate debt and manage their money wisely. A wide range of family advocacy initiatives are available to army families, from new parent support groups to abuse prevention classes to assistance for families with special needs. One of the latest amenities offered to soldiers are the legal assistance services, which can provide free walk-in counseling. The attorneys on staff offer advice on personal legal matters, review legal documents such as contracts and leases, and can even prepare wills. An additional service, that is very important to those with families at home, are the child and youth services. These services provide affordable child-care programs for army families. Costs are typically based on rank and pay grade. Programs range from day-care facilities to sports and fitness programs. Child development centers provide full-day care as well as hourly care for children 6 weeks to 5 years of age. School-age services deliver before- and after-school care during the school year. Middle school/teen programs focus on sports and fitness, life skills and leadership, arts and recreation and mentoring and education for youth grades six through 12. If a father or mother is away, the army will take on that role for their family, whereas in WWII, the mother carried the burden of handling the children and earning money to stay afloat.
Most recognizably, the amount of women serving in the military has also radically transformed. Women make up 14.6% of active duty soldiers, and 19.5% of the reserve soldiers. A woman in the military was practically unheard of during WWII. In fact, women were most noticeably recognized for stepping up and taking care of the United States while their husbands were away, filling untraditional roles for women. Rosie the Riveter is an icon from that era.
The most difficult part of army life for the families at home is the notifications of a fallen active duty soldier. In 2009, a film called The Messenger, starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, was released that followed two men whose job it is to notify families of their loved ones death. The speed in which families are notified that a family member has been killed has hugely improved. In the 1940s, a family did not know if their father or husband was alive or dead until letters from him stopped coming, or until he walked through the front door. In fact, on a recent episode of Mad Men, a show that very brilliantly sticks to historical accuracy, one of the creative writers mentions that he lost a cousin, but was not informed until three months after the fact. Today, a family can speak with their loved one in the morning, and by the afternoon have that tragic and dreadful knock on their front door. Casualty assistance workers begin processing information as soon as the call comes in from the war zone, or wherever a soldier is killed. They locate next of kin, get directions to the family home and gather as much detail as possible about how the soldier died. They call a soldier who has been trained as a casualty notification officer to notify the family. The goal is to make notification within four hours. From three months to four hours. The dissimilarity is astonishing. The appointed casualty notification officer wears their Class A uniform and knock on the door to deliver the devastating news. They stay to make sure the soldier's family members are physically okay, provide immediate comfort and then leave.

 However, these special soldiers can spend up to 45 days helping the families with funeral arrangements, contacting other relatives, filing insurance claims, and processing Army benefits. They attend memorial services, go with the family to receive the body at the airport and attend the funeral. If family members have questions about how the soldier died, they try to answer them. In fact, many families keep in contact with their CAO (Casualty Assistance Officer).
The average active army term is 47.9 months, and the average army reserve term is a whopping 71 months. During WWII, the average active army term was 33 months. Soldiers today are serving longer terms compared to soldiers from WWII, therefore spending more time apart from not only their families, but from their recognized society and lifestyle.
While this increased communication and technology may seem like a positive for both families and their soldiers, re-adjusting to life back in the States may be even more difficult than ever before. For families, to be notified of a spouse or father’s death after speaking to him just a few hours prior, is utterly shocking and heartbreaking, not to mention very difficult to believe and come to terms with. But for a soldier, where during WWII, the most common way of traveling was by weeks on a boat, today a soldier can be in the middle of a firefight, and hours later be sitting in a movie theater, watching the newest Iron Man. There is almost no realistic time to readjust back to life. Those soldiers whose main job is to deliver the news of death are often desensitized, and as their job is constantly informing families of tragedies abroad, have little awareness of what is normal and abnormal, being stuck between two very contrasting worlds. For a soldier, after serving 50 months in a dangerous, war-stricken society where being on high-alert at all times is absolutely vital, and then returning home to the safest place on Earth, the good old United States of America, is no easy task. The fear is hard to shake. It haunts soldiers in the oddest places – waiting in line at the store, driving to pick up their kids. At any moment they believe an IED could explode. Then there’s the family. Life is different since they have returned home. Their spouse handled everything from raising the kids to managing finances and maintaining the home. Now they question where they fit in to this world of normalcy. The honeymoon period of reintegration feels as if it is definitely wearing off. Many soldiers feel this way, and that is why they have created programs such as The Transition Project to help soldiers realize they are home, they are safe and they will in time return to living their lives the way they did before. The project is filled with stories, tips for re-adjustment, and support for families, friends, and service members coming home after deployment.
Armed Forces Day just passed on May 18th, where we honor those who fight bravely to keep us safe. Whether it is 1918, 1945 or 2013, the emotional homecoming has remained the same incredible, heart-warming and joyful moment. For a moment, there is no enemy or impending danger; it is just a soldier reuniting with the family that they solemnly swore to protect. With all of the new advancements in technology and communication, families are staying more connected than ever. The support services offered to families with loved ones fighting abroad have greatly increased and offered the assistance and comfort that these families deserve. Although a 20-minute Skype video call may lift some burden while fighting abroad, there is nothing like touching and seeing the ones you love, in the country you love.

Works Cited

"Army Families | The United States Army." The Official Home Page of the United States Army | The United States Army. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.army.mil/families>.
"Army Family Readiness." Army FRG :: Homepage. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.armyfrg.org/skins/frg/home.aspx>.
"Deployments and Military Family Communication."            The National Communication Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2013. <http://www.natcom.org/CommCurrentsArticle.aspx?id=962>.
"Soldier and Family Services." Go Army. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2013. <www.goarmy.com/benefits/soldier-and-family-services.html >.
"Support Army Recruiting." United States Army Recruiting Command (USAREC). N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.usarec.army.mil/support/faqs.htm>.


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