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Returning Warrior Workshop Breaks Mold

Navy couple

You have thoughts about what the military is "like." All of us do. Yes, even those of us who are affiliated with the military.

Typical stereotypes include the following:

The military isn't into "sharing feelings."

The military thinks counseling is for sissies.

The military encourages bravado.

The military is filled with people who love a good fight.

For most of my life, I've shared some of these thoughts. Then, last month, I attended a Returning Warrior Workshop, and my beliefs were shattered. RWWs are run by the Navy Reserve and designed for sailors who have recently returned from an overseas deployment.

When Dustin asked me to be his guest at the workshop -- which was out-of-state and would involve arranging travel and childcare -- I wasn't enthusiastic.

I've been to military workshops before. Most of them are incredibly bland and reminiscent of the world's most boring college lecture. They are run by people whose hands are tied by regulations and whose pay is not necessarily affected by performance.

There usually is no incentive, nor room, for meaningful conversation -- and definitely not entertainment -- in standard military briefings.

"This will be different," Dustin said. "Trust me."

Each attendee and their guest were put up in a nice hotel for the weekend. Our RWW was in Baltimore, Md., and held at the city's inner harbor. If nothing else, I was excited about a weekend away with my husband.

When we checked in, we received the usual conference handouts: pamphlets with things like "The Phases of Reintegration" printed on them.

Snore, I thought. More of the same. What the military promotes is historically at odds with its reality. How many times have I received a booklet informing me of the stress of deployments, then been met with the unspoken directive to soldier on?

I was skeptical and pre-emptively annoyed when we arrived for the first dinner. You can take the military off base, but can you ever take the military out of the military?

That was before Eric Harris came onto the stage. Harris is hired by the Navy Region Mid-Atlantic, Reserve Component Command as a family support administrator. He is energetic and funny, and perhaps most importantly, he is not military.

He didn't wear a uniform. He didn't speak in acronyms. His hands weren't tied by the same formalities.

The weekend opened with National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones's motivational film "Celebrate What's Right with the World," a truly beautiful and moving presentation that gave me goosebumps. For 22 minutes, I forgot that I was at a military workshop.

Later, we broke into small groups to "share our story." Small groups? In the military? What?

Servicemembers in their civilian clothes talked about what it's like to come home from deployment. Some of them even got emotional. Others did not. But everyone seemed to be relaxed and, well, not military.

Senior officers in civilian clothes mingled with junior members in civilian clothes. It was all so very ... normal.

There were breakout sessions with focused presentations of particular concern to individual servicemembers and their guests. Dustin and I attended one session about dealing with children's reactions to deployments and another one by Linda MacNeal, a humorist, about using humor to deal with stress.

Dustin, who has been schooled in service etiquette since the day he entered the Naval Academy when he was 17 years old, actually raised his hand and asked personal questions.

I wanted to take a picture of it. Never before, in my 14 years of knowing Dustin as a commissioned officer, have I seen him "break character" in a military setting. At the RWW, he was Dustin the father and husband, not Dustin the servicemember.

After hours, we made great friends at the hotel bar and shared more stories of deployments. And, of course, we had a weekend in a nice hotel without children, so besides the workshop, it was like a honeymoon for us.

I can't share the workshop's ending with you, because it is a great surprise for attendees. What I can tell you is that after 36 years of feeling at the mercy of the military, for that one night, the military celebrated me and everyone other family member in attendance. We even got a standing ovation.

The military is evolving. RWWs prove it.

If you or a loved one has recently returned from a deployment, don't be fooled by the sound of "workshop." This is unlike anything you're experienced in the military before, and I can't recommend it enough. You can find a listing of upcoming Returning Warrior Workshops here.

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Navy wife Sarah Smiley is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (2005) and I'm Just Saying (2008). She has been featured in the New York Times and Newsweek, and on Nightline, The Early Show, CNN, Fox News and other local and national news outlets. Her liferights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet, and Paramount Television to be made into a half-hour sitcom. Visit for more details. To contact Sarah, you can also visit her Facebook page.

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