Making Military Families Whole Again Takes Time


What one word sums up your feelings about your father coming home from war?

Chelsea Riley picked up a marker pen to answer the question, but she couldn't stop at a single word. A small essay poured out, describing how she missed Capt. Ian Riley during the holidays even as she looked forward to his return by Christmas.

"He's been going off and on since I was 7," the 13-year-old explained.

One of Chelsea's younger brothers had a simpler message about Dad's return. He bounded up to the wall where children of deployed troops shared their thoughts and scrawled out: "Excited."

The Riley family's anticipation echoes around Joint Base Lewis-McChord this winter. Banners hang along roads welcoming troops who left for tough missions in southern Afghanistan a year ago. Planes land almost daily, bringing back more and more Stryker soldiers -- about 8,000 in all.

It's a joyful period for many Army families as the base south of Tacoma has its last big homecoming wave from a decade of war. But it's also a challenging time as they reintegrate soldiers who spent the past nine to 12 months in a combat zone.

In this season, a child's daydreams about getting the full attention of mom or dad can crash into the reality that it takes some time to calm down from the heightened senses of war, not to mention the exhaustion of the long trip home.

"They see their parent, they have all these created realities, and that's not what happens," said Norma Melo, Lewis-McChord's youth education support services director.

"What happens is Dad's lucky if he can get a shower and eat before he falls asleep," she said.

Melo has a special touch with Army kids. She knows when to hug and how to draw out an honest remark. Her experience is personal; she lost her husband, Julian, a Lewis-McChord Stryker sergeant, in Iraq in 2004.

Her job gives her influence over school liaison officers and counselors supporting the families of Lewis-McChord's 46,000 active-duty and Reserve service members.

Two-thirds of the local service members who responded to a South Sound Military and Communities Partnership survey last year indicated they have children. The partnership estimates that 1 in 5 children between Tacoma and Lacey have a parent working at the base as a civilian or service member.

From Melo's standpoint, those children often go overlooked, especially compared with services provided to soldiers and their spouses.

"The one thing we don't concentrate on is our kids," she said.

She helped prepare dozens of Army children for their parents' homecomings last month at an exercise called Camp Arrowhead. It centered on children such as Chelsea Riley who have a parent in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division -- Lewis-McChord's "Arrowhead Brigade."

Melo kicked off the camp by inviting the kids to write words on a banner describing how they felt about their parents coming home. She put up a hypothetical example on the paper to set the tone for the day.

"Here's mine -- I feel scary," she told them. "When dad left, he told me to be good, but I haven't been so good."

Kids were free to express feelings other than happiness about mom or dad coming home from Afghanistan. The messages they offered included "worried," "weird," and "relief."

Throughout the day, kids broke into small groups in which they played games and talked with counselors about what to expect at home.

Many had been through a deployment before. They looked forward to day trips, or doing fewer chores around the house once their family reunites.

"I'm going to be happy when he comes home because I won't have to babysit so much," said Kali Budd, who was anticipating the return of her stepdad, Cpl. Dan Stamper.

Jayson Roy, 16, expected Dad getting on his case about homework. The oldest of four children, he took on more responsibilities over the past year.

"I can't wait to have him get on my butt about school," said Roy, whose stepdad, Maj. Dave Polizzotti, was finishing up his third yearlong deployment.

"I'm losing concentration because of the war," Roy said.

Last month, Chelsea Riley was looking forward to holidays with her dad and maybe a couple of trips to the bowling alley. Capt. Riley's tour in Afghanistan was his fourth deployment since 2005.

Chelsea knew what to expect from his first days back in the house.

"When he comes home, he sleeps and eats my mom's cooking," she said.

Capt. Riley made it home by late November. The family relaxed for a few days and took their time getting back to their pre-deployment routines.

The officer and his wife, Bobbi-Jo Riley, started making their homecoming plan weeks before he returned. They discussed when he'd start to assert himself in the house, and how to balance the checkbook now that he's not receiving combat pay.

They put much more work into their planning this time than they had in the past.

"You learn from each one, and you just get better at it," said Capt. Riley, 34.

He led a company of soldiers in the 3rd Brigade's 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment for part of his deployment. His troops often take direction better than his four kids.

"You ask your soldiers to do something, and they do it. You ask your kids to do it, and they don't," he said.

Bobbi-Jo Riley also thinks their planning paid off. She attended a "spouse academy" for 3rd Brigade families in October at which she shared tips with other wives about how to adjust to having their husbands home.

"The same things happen every time, but sometimes you don't think of it," she said.

"They come home and they take their boots off at the door, and that's the honeymoon phase.

"Three months from now, it's 'Can he put his boots away?'"

She thinks Camp Arrowhead helped her children adjust their expectations and prepare for their dad's return, too.

"The happiness is there, but without the time to reflect, you just focus on making posters," she said, referring to the welcome-home banners families often make for soldiers. "You forget you actually have to work at it."

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Army Family and Spouse