What to Expect During Deployment

woman holding toddler post deployment
(Edwin L. Wriston/DVIDS)

When deployment is looming, many spouses start wondering what to expect. The good news is there is a method to the madness, and we can all learn from the experience of the military families who have developed ways to survive and even thrive during deployments.

The key to getting through it is understanding what's coming and then and leveraging the good parts of deployment -- because there are some.

How do I prepare for deployment?

How you should get ready for deployment depends on how long you have to prepare. Sometimes it feels like the time before deployment is the worst phase. Spouses make the effort to enjoy their service member before the inevitable parting, but those efforts are thwarted by unpredictable work-up schedules. For instance, family dinners are fouled by the service member coming home late. It's not their fault that another unit failed to pass their 'quals,' but the family feels resentful nonetheless. Promised birthday parties and soccer games are missed because of extended sea trials or war games.

On top of preparing emotionally for deployment, there are a few things you should do to make sure your house is in order. Among those are the things you'd rather not think about, but they're part of a service member's pre-deployment preparations (or PDP).

Make sure your finances are in order -- and that you have access to the accounts -- that your power of attorney will last the length of the deployment, and that both of your wills have been updated. You may also want to have some discussions on communication and expectations when they're gone.

How do we communicate during deployment?

On top of being an ocean or more apart, communication during deployment can be tricky for other reasons. Yes, we've come a long way in the last two decades, moving from writing letters and posting blog posts to being able to talk on the phone. But the expectations may not have changed too much.

Your service member is busy. During deployment they are likely working a literal 24/7 job right now. The military is their life during this deployment and that may mean they don't have time to talk all day. And, let's be honest, you're busy too. Add in the time zone and you may not be able to talk as much as you think.

One spouse revealed to me her family's deployment trick. Her service member was expected to call home when he had the chance after arriving in-country and present her with the following pieces of information: how they would communicate and how often he thought they would be able to. Having that information, she could then go about life.

While we all want to be available when the phone rings or the video call comes, it's not realistic to sit around and wait for months on end. Talk to your service member before they leave about what they expect from you and what you expect from them.

I don't feel sad yet, is that ok?

When my husband first left for deployment (his third, my first after we had married) I felt ... weird. We had less than a week's notice and so there was no time to do anything but get ready. Then I dropped him off at work and went home. And that was it. I wasn't sad. I wasn't crying. It didn't feel different.

I worried that maybe I didn't do it right. But, each spouse will experience these things differently. Big good-bye ceremonies are going to make things more emotional overall. Spending hours waiting to say good-bye is exhausting. Some of us are going to need a good cry right away, while others may be good for a week or two.

I remember the first time I finally felt sad. It was about a week after he left and I was not even sure why I was sad. We'd been apart longer than that before, so could I really miss him already?

Your deployment emotions are yours. Don't compare them to anyone else, or even the last deployment. Take the time you need and then, get to work.

What do you do during deployment?

Every experienced military spouse will tell you that the key to getting through deployments is keeping busy. The good news is that the new-found freedom provides more time to pursue professional and personal aspirations. You may find that you have more time to finish schoolwork or to read books - which is great!

Deployment is a great time to do something new. Or not. There are no rules here. You can volunteer, you can start a new hobby and you can get together with the other spouses in the unit. Or you can do none of these things.

Extra house maintenance and parenting, if applicable, will certainly keep spouses busy. Mowing the lawn, driving kids to sports leagues, managing the finances and maintaining auto repair are among the tasks which spouses should prepare for. Financial experts say that all families should save a minimum of six months of cash for living expenses in case of an emergency. This is certainly true for military families who face the Murphy's Law of deployment. The moment a service member deploys, the car will break down, the plumbing will burst or the roof will cave in. Military spouses must be prepared to manage these crises.

Should I move back home during deployment?

If you want to, sure. Or you could go for an extended visit. There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to move while your service member is deployed. If you live in housing and want to keep the house, you have to keep paying for it. If you want to move completely out of the house, you aren't guaranteed a place when you return.

Also, there's no money in it. The military won't pay to move you "home" during deployment. (Cue the "buts.” Yes, there are exceptions to everything, but don't count on it.) You may also have to change Tricare regions and pay out of pocket for some medical care. Then there is the changing of schools, finding a new job and living with your parents that may cause some issues.

Whatever you decide to do, know this: you can change your mind. You don't have to do what your neighbor does. And you don't have to do for this deployment what you did for the last one.

How much will we make on a deployment?

Extra money is often a selling point for deployments, but it should be taken with a grain of salt. While there are usually extra pays and allowances during deployment, there may be other things that cost more.

Among the extras your service member could get during deployment are Family Separation Pay ($250), Hardship Duty Pay (up to $150), Imminent Danger Pay (up to $225) and Hostile Fire Pay (up to $225). But they may also lose their basic allowance subsistence because meals are being provided.

Try to get a good idea of how the pay will change in advance, and don't make any crazy changes before that first month's statement comes out. Then you can make plans. You may also want to save some money for your service member to shop online or buy things they may need while deployed.

Do I have to send care packages?

Short answer: no. There is no rule in the military spouse handbook that says you have to send elaborately decorated care packages. Or handwritten cards or letters doused in perfume. You don't have to send anything, ever.

Pretty much everything they need will be provided to them, or available for them to purchase. And, let's face it, you are short on time and love too. So really, they should be sending you a care package for everyone you send there.

Deployments are hard, but they eventually end. And then, you can enjoy the time together, laugh about all the things that went wrong and focus on the future.

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