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Spouse Describes Reunion, Reintegration Challenges

Kelly Henry was hoping for a picture-perfect reunion when her husband returned after a yearlong deployment to Iraq.

But what she got was far from a Hollywood scene.

“All four [of my kids] cried within 48 hours of my husband coming home,” said Henry, wife of Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Michael Henry, a family medicine doctor assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C.

Henry described the ups and downs of reunion and reintegration and lessons learned yesterday in an interview with American Forces Press Service.

The floodgates first opened when her husband arrived home early Dec. 2.

“His flight had been delayed, so he arrived at 1 a.m.,” she recalled. Henry asked him to take a cab home rather than wake up their four children to pick him up at the airport.

When he walked through the door, “Our 4-year-old woke up and burst into tears; he couldn’t be soothed,” she said.

He had seen his father on a Web cam a week before, “but he was totally freaked out,” Henry said. “It wasn’t one of those warm reunion moments; both of us were trying to console a frightened 4-year-old.”

It was downhill from there. “Later in the day, one of my kids became feverish at school and came home,” she said. “So, on my husband’s first day home, I was in the acute clinic with a child with a double ear infection, and he was making dinner and feeding three kids. Not a good first 24 hours.”

Then, two of their kids cried at dinner after their father corrected their behavior. “Big tears; big, big tears,” Henry observed.

It took some time, but life has been smoother sailing since those tough first days, Henry said.

“I’d say it took a good month to get back to normal,” she said. “The first couple of days, a kid was glued to his side constantly. Now we’re a lot more casual. We’re back into our regular routine.”

Henry said she’s not surprised there were a few rough spots. She’s experienced the gamut during her husband’s four deployments, and she has first-hand experience as a Navy “brat” and retired Navy commander.

“I grew up with a parent in the Navy; this has been my life from birth,” she said. “I feel like I’m pretty well equipped.”

Henry said she’s learned by now that the reunion “is not going to go the way you think it’s going to go. Someone is going to cry,” she said. Still, each time is different, with different lessons learned, she added. To illustrate, she described a “meltdown” her daughter had when her husband first returned home.

Henry was out running an errand while her husband stayed behind to help their daughter with her math homework. Their older son began to tease her about her math skills, and she started crying.

“My husband called me and said, ‘I don’t know why she’s crying,’” Henry recalled. “I knew right away what was up. You can’t do math with our daughter while her brother, a ‘math wiz,’ is in the room. “It didn’t occur to me to tell him this. These are the subtle things you forget to mention. They lose the flavor of what it’s like to be in the room.”

To add to the challenge, children may change substantially while a loved one is away for long periods of time.

“Our 4-year-old was a baby when he left, and is now an independent boy,” Henry said. “There are big changes in our children’s personalities and what they can do, what they worry about, what they think is funny or scary.”

To ease reunion roadblocks, Henry advises parents to maintain closeness by keeping an open line of communication between the deployed parent and their children during the separation. She also said a strict routine is all important.

“It’s important to maintain a routine, whether he’s here or not,” she said, noting that a routine maintains a healthy order to the household.

At the same time, “I think you have to balance between bringing the parent back into a family routine and not dumping everything on them all at once,” she said.

Over the years, Henry said, she’s learned the importance of allowing her husband time to decompress.

“I think what’s hard is that they go from an environment where the things they deal with are life-and-death issues, and then they come home, and what people are reacting to [is] treated with the same urgency,” she said. “It’s hard to reframe that perspective and not dismiss concerns because they’re not life-and-death.”

Henry said she tries to be sensitive to this and encourages her children to seek Dad out, but doesn’t let all four pummel him with things that need to be done immediately. “I tell them, ‘Dad’s going to be really tired and may not remember all the rules. Let’s show him how we do things,’” she said.

Whether the spouse is deployed or at home, Henry said, military programs can offer families some much-needed help.

“The first time my husband went to Iraq, I would meet with a coffee group,” she said. “We had informal ‘battle buddies’ to help us over the course of a deployment. It was really helpful.”

Henry also used online military resources to ease the reintegration for her family. “So much of the information is common sense, but during such an emotional time, it’s hard to remember it all,” she said. “Everyone’s emotions are running high.”

She also emphasized the importance of reaching out to younger military spouses who may not be aware of the support and the extensive amount of resources available to help them.

“We’re older -- late 40s and married almost 20 years. I think, as a family, we’re well-equipped to handle deployments, but it’s still hard even for us,” she said. “But there are young families that don’t have a long-term relationship to fall back on. For them, the reunion can be very challenging.”

Henry said she’s always willing to lend a helping hand.

“We have a young couple in our neighborhood; the husband is deployed,” she said. “We get together for pizza a couple of times a month. It’s fun for our kids and nice for me to have another grownup over. Being able to have adult conversation was helpful to me when my husband was deployed.”

Henry said she knows more separations and rough patches loom ahead, but today, she’s just grateful to have her husband home.

“He’s fitting right back in,” she said. “I’m enjoying this time with all of us together.”

And, she added, “No one has cried in over a week.”

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