Unity among Strangers?

Military spouses holding a book club

Just when Army wife Gina Redwine thought she had dealing with deployment down pat, her husband’s third one threw her for a loop. He was being deployed to Iraq with only 10 other soldiers, which in some ways could be a little easier. After all, it was a small group, right? Well, none of these soldiers or families had ever met. All of them lived in different parts of the country and were being brought together to form a unit. Everything Gina had learned about family support in her 20 years as a military spouse would be very different, so she thought at first.

But, after giving it some thought, she and her husband Jim figured out some easy yet effective ways to establish and maintain unity among the loved ones left behind.

“Luckily, Jim was very proactive in getting the names and e-mail addresses of all the team members, and he contacted them well in advance of their departure for train-up,” she said. “I was able to make contact with the families, so they knew we were going to be a ‘team’ as well.”

The Redwines made the right move.

“It is extremely important for military families to align themselves with other military families during deployment, particularly when the service members are deployed in an Individual Augmentee status,” said Stanley Beason, deployment coordinator at the Fleet and Family Support Center in San Diego. “Be sure to take advantage of any opportunity to connect and establish support.”

It turns out that establishing the connection was easy; a little more challenging was maintaining unity throughout the deployment. Would it really be possible to do so given the fact that all the families were so geographically dispersed and the group also very diverse?

“Not all the family members were wives. They were parents, sisters, brothers and in-laws, and some of them had no military background,” she said. “There were even two dual-military couples on the team, and one of them had a wife who was deployed to Korea.

Gina decided to fall back on a familiar communication tool and wrote a monthly newsletter that was geared solely toward those families. It contained photos, special interest columns, a book club and a monthly movie review. Keeping in mind that some of them did not have e-mail, she even mailed hard copies. Very quickly, two other wives stepped up to write for the newsletter, and families began to regularly send her photographs to publish in it. Because of her determination to keep the home team together, Gina spoke with every family member at least once during the deployment and several of them on a regular basis.

In fact, even six months after the unit’s return, many of them still communicate by phone and e-mail.

“Even though we have never met, we all feel a part of the same family,” she said. “It’s almost as if we were the Army families who lived next door to each other. One of the wives and I will end up being one of my best friends for life.”

But what happens if you are part of a unit like this and no one steps up to the plate to bring you all together? Gina recommends that if no one takes that step to do something that will build unity, you should be the one who makes the difference.

“Technology is a wonderful thing; you can introduce yourself in a two-sentence e-mail, and you never know where it might lead,” she said.

Realizing that some people might not be on e-mail, Gina took the time to write brief letters, too.

“It only took 15 minutes to make a very big difference for them, and I am glad I did. One father expressed he would be forever grateful,” Gina said.

On another occasion, Gina went to visit her own parents in New York, and while there, she arranged to have a picnic with both sets of parents of the dual military couple who was deployed to Iraq and Korea. She had communicated with all of them during the deployment, including the wife in Korea.

“Meeting them was like meeting members of your own family for the first time,” said Gina.

If for some reason, you just can’t get the group to gel, all is not lost. Reach out to your local community-based organizations that support military families, you might be pleasantly surprised. There is likely to be a whole new set of open doors for establishing military connections and maintaining supportive relationships. By participating in events and activities they often host, virtually and in person, you just might make that connection with other military families who can be in your personal support system.

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Family and Spouse Deployment