No Equality Between Combat Deployment and ‘Regular’ Deployment

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Sometimes I think I understand deployment.  My Navy husband has deployed eight times.  His ship is in one of the most volatile areas of the world as I write this. I understand what I know as a gone-for-eight-months kind of regular deployment. (If you will please let me call that a “regular” deployment).

But every time I talk to the wife of an Army Ranger or the wife of a Navy SEAL or the spouse of servicemember who has been in boots-on-the-ground combat, I realize I don’t understand deployment the way they understand deployment.

So I asked Army wife Sabrina King to help me out with this.  She has been married 19 years.  Her husband has done five deployments and has 1,753 days in combat operations.

So I passed a list of what a regular deployment means to me and she passed back a list of what the cumulative toll of five combat deployments means to her.

Granted, our list is not necessarily the norm for every single military family, but it is helping me understand how outcomes can be so different.  What differences would you add to our list?

A regular deployment means the days are long, the weeks are longer, the months can drag by.

A combat deployment means the minutes are long.  It can mean sometimes the seconds are long when you are waiting to hear who the casualty notification email was about.

A regular deployment means it is frustrating when packages take two months to get to your service member and the email goes down.

A combat deployment means there are communications blackouts after casualty incidents.  It means listening to your soldier debrief himself on the phone to you while he is trying to keep ahold of his humanity.  It means feeling dumbstruck by what is coming out of his mouth…and able to do nothing.

A regular deployment means you hardly ever see senior wives because they busy with their teens and their jobs and they are as old as your mother.  You have your own friends.

A combat deployment means senior wives that you see are driven to help because they know you need them. But you might not see some senior wives because they have reached the point they just can’t take it anymore. Once they know something, they can’t unknow it.

A regular deployment means that you may have to give birth to your baby alone and that hurts.

A combat deployment means that you pray to get pregnant on R&R so you have some part of him to keep in case something happens.

A regular deployment means that someday you may attend the funeral of a pilot whose aircraft malfunctions, a spouse who loses the battle with cancer, or even your own parents. These deaths are tragic.

A combat deployment means you might attend the funeral of the guy who sat next to you at the Birthday Ball–and six of his friends.  You might attend funerals for 27 people in three weeks.  The table at your homecoming ball you set up to hold the pictures of the deceased may not be big enough, so you go back and get a second table.  Then go back and get a third.  Finally you get a fourth and it isn’t until you see all those 8 x10s at once that you have any idea of the totality of what has happened. These deaths are tragedy extrapolated.

A regular deployment means that you need to find someone to swap babysitting with you so that you can do something exciting…like get your teeth cleaned.

A combat deployment means, you tuck a four-year old boy into bed because his own mother is on Valium and he asks, “Did my Daddy die because I forgot to say my prayers?”

A regular deployment means that you worry just before homecoming that your husband has forgotten how annoying kids can be while he has been gone.

A combat deployment can mean that your children learn to tell the temperature of a room with their own skin.  It can mean your kid whispers to their sibling, “Dad’s in a mood. Lets go to our rooms.”  It can mean that your husband finally agrees to go to behavioral therapy after your 12 year old lays her hand on his shoulder while he is watching the news and says, “I think sometimes people have PTSD and don’t even know it.”

A regular deployment means that you think a positive attitude is all you need to get though and you work on developing those skills.

A combat deployment can mean you question everything and ache for your own innocence.

A regular deployment leaves you feeling like the military is a pretty good start in life, that it teaches people responsibility and gives them real work experience.

A combat deployment might make you worry every time you see a headline about the military suicides and the leap in the rate of child abuse.  It makes you worry that the military is taking our young people and doing nothing but chewing them up, spitting them out and leaving them to fend for themselves.

A regular deployment means that you think deployments only differ by length and how many challenges you worked through at home.

A combat deployment means you have experienced regular deployments and trainings and TDYs And NONE if it, NONE of it prepared you for the reality of a combat deployment.

Sabrina and I both know that there is a complete spectrum of experience when it comes to deployment — and all of those experiences are necessary when deploying a military force.  But I think that it is in allowing for a range of experience and a range of resources that we find solutions. So I keep listening and reading and watching for understanding wherever it falls.

About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com. Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at JaceyEckhart.net.

21 Comments on "No Equality Between Combat Deployment and ‘Regular’ Deployment"

  1. Can someone from the navy side out the services please explain the difference in the types of deployments the navy does? I ask because before I met my spouse I dated a guy in the navy and he used to refer to standard training exercises that were about 4 months at a time as deployments even though they were not in a combact zone. Deployment for the army, air force and marines means you are on the ground in a combat zone. So I am confused why standard training is considered a deployment to the navy. My nieces boyfriend just shipped out last month for a 4 month taining exercise and he also called it a deployment. I’d just like to understand. Thanks

  2. jacey_eckhart | August 12, 2013 at 2:31 pm |

    Diane: This is exactly why Sabrina and I wrote about the differences between a deployment and a combat deployment.

    The deployment itself–complete with constant separation and unrelenting work– is hard enough for people. It was hard before 9/11. It will still be hard if ever the world would calm down enough to bring most of our troops home.

    The research shows that it is the combat deployment that puts the servicemember at risk for experiences that can lead to PTSD. And that is what can lead to the more serious outcomes for families that Sabrina and many other spouses describe.

    I sincerely do not want this post to lead down the path of which branch of the service works hardest. That isn't at all productive. Each service does exactly what it was designed to do.

    Instead I was really hoping that we would talk about what a combat deployment can mean for families. And by doing so, I hope that we can talk about what can be done to help each other.

  3. thank you for deleting my last post explaining my reason for asking. I wasn’t trying to say anything about who works the hardest in which service, that was an assumption on your part. I was being honest in my reasons of why i was asking. Until all branches spouses can undertand the differences we will always be seen as bickering and infighting instead of learning from each other and sharing in an honest and open forum. I thought this blog space was a place for us all to come together and share and learn from each other, but that clearly is not what this blog is about. It is about being divisive and avoiding honest questions. I do not see how it is wrong to help each spouse understand what the other goes through but this site picks and chooses whos posts to allow ans who’s to censor. It’s sad, I have many friends who like your site but never post because they feel the same way. With that note, I am washing my hands of Spousebuzz and turning to other military blogs where people acutally encourage spouses to share with each other in a effort to help there be a better understanding to bridge our communities instead of censor for a narrow view.

  4. I have to chim in on this topic. I am a Marine spouse and work for the Marine Corps teaching classes with the L.I.N.K.S. program. Now for my husbands MOS he does deployments w the Navy on a MEU/West Pac, has been to combat, UDP and APS. All these include intensive training. What the Marine Corps considers a deployment rather it be combat, regular or training deployments is a servicemember who has been away for 31 consective days and a "deployment is a deployment". And Marine train and deploy regardless if we are at war or not. I know this gets confusing believe me I've had to ask TONS of questions to verify this! I believe that all deployments that our servicemembers go on are dangerous! Anything can happen where they go and what they do and regardless of branch of service. Our world is not a safe one at that! What my suggestion is to take classes that are offered that teach you the structure and community of your branch of service. And gear up because now we are hearing "garrison" liviing and I believe families and servicemembers who have been at this for sometime now are going to have a bigger stuggle and that's getting use to being together more…

  5. sabrinacking | August 12, 2013 at 4:32 pm |

    I think the only thing I would add to the list is this. Noncombat deployments by and large exist in a finite reality. They happen, they end, you move on. But combat deployments can, and frequently do, change all parties involved indefinitely. The psychological and philosophical changes that occur to people during war are just as real as the physical things that happen to people during war, and all 3 often times…never end. Further, with the OpTempo we have been experiencing these past 12 years….there is no pre/during/post deployment cycle. Its been all one giant blur. So people are experiencing combat deployment not in these three stage phases, but as one continuous cycle with no enough separation in between to decompress, reset and carry on. This is why I think we see people not dressing "appropriately" or not following basic "etiquette" etc. They are exhausted. And instead of giving them some compassion, too often wives in collective want to stoop to junior high tactics and debase them. I am taking a SpouseBuzz hiatus too. You can lead blind horses to water, but you can't make them drink.

  6. Thanks for this, Jacey and Sabrina. It does put things in perspective, somewhat. However (yes, here it is), as important as concentrating on what these deployments do to our military and their families as they go on and on and on, I still maintain that for a lot of us it helps to maintain some sort of "normal" on the end we CAN influence. Even if it's as silly as complaining about or agreeing with dress codes. There isn't much in this life we have control over or that I can influence, but what I can do, I will, mostly by trying to volunteer my time and help others – somehow this has proven to help me most while going through deployments and TDY's and trainings and shifts that were seemingly never-ending.

    As much as I understand your tiredness and your urge to get people to understand that there are more important things out there than who wears what and who wind at Bunco, I also understand when people are taken aback a little by the undertone of "You don't know what I'm talking about, you're silly for worrying about FRGs and manners and dress codes." Silly as it may be, for some it might be the only way to feel normalcy around them in a world of chaos and fear…

  7. *wins at Bunco

  8. I appreciate this article as well as all the comments. The realities of how deployments (no matter how they are defined) affect families are shown so clearly with each statement, and that is the point isn't it? To help us see that while we are all one community there are different definitions in the way each branch speaks, different challenges and different experiences. Bottom line it's discussions and articles like this that help us communicate and understand the challenges that each branch goes through and the more we understand each "dialect" the easier it is to be supportive of one another. It's not about who has it harder it's about understanding each other and finding ways to be united so that our service members (and families) have the support they need. And it begins with awareness which this article clearly does! Thanks ladies!

  9. There have been a variety of research studies conducted and some that are still in process that are studying the effects of deployments on military families. I would love to know if they are working from a particular definition and if it is a standard definition all of them use.
    My husband has done both types of "deployments". Most of his, he was what is called an "individual augment" which adds a whole new dynamic for the family not addressed in this particular article.

  10. I think this is a fair generalization of the different emotions of spouses going through "regular" and combat deployments. They are both hard and have their own challenges. Thank you for posting this. :)

  11. All branches have their own definitions. My husband is a submariner. Typically, anything over 6 mos is considered a deployment. Underways are anything else. In my experience, there is very little communication. Maybe 3 phone calls an entire deployment, 1-2 emails a month, depending on the mission. Even different types of submarines have different terminology- deployments or patrols.
    I think we all worry about our husbands (my personal worries- nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons, and just being hundreds of feet underwater for months at a time having absolutely no idea where they are)- and I don't think it is about who worries more, but that we all think about them every minute they are gone.

  12. There are some inaccuracies in the some of the Army descriptions.

    "A combat deployment means the minutes are long. It can mean sometimes the seconds are long when you are waiting to hear who the casualty notification email was about."

    An email isn't sent to anyone. A casualty report is filed from theater and is input into a database where CMAOC notifies the closest CAC, who then alerts the on-duty notification officer who notifies in-person of a KIA, VSI or SI. No email is sent for notification of any casualty, and if it is, it's being done outside of regs and chain of command.

    As far as the senior wives feeling "driven to help" – this is not exclusive to senior spouses- this is a large majority of spouses across all ranks. And you may not see senior wives (or any other wife) because they work. Or because the deployment isn't one of a unit as a whole deploying. Or they are deploying as IAs. My husband deployed to Iraq alone and came back alone. He deployed to Afghanistan alone and will come back alone. I have met one spouse whose Soldier is deployed to the same area for that very reason- we just happen to live close to each other. Otherwise, I've not met or spoken to one single spouse who's Soldier is even in the same battalion or brigade.

    I don't see the point of this post, it seems like one upping of who has it worse and is full of melodrama. We all have our challenges- it doesn't matter what kind of deployment it is. People die in training accidents everyday stateside. No one is safe. All kids miss their parents. All spouses have it rough at one point or another. Keeping tally of who feels worse, who is more at risk, etc., is not healthy. Live every day like its your last and stop looking for ways to count your miseries, loneliness, etc. Military life is a choice- I choose to make it the best it can be.

  13. No rear d commander should EVER share casualty information with any spouse. I worked in CMAOC for three years dealing exclusively with theater and what you just shared is a gross violation of Army regulations. No one outside of official Army channels should ever be privy to any casualty occurance or information until the NOK has been notified. Period.

  14. And who initiated the post is irrelevant. I was merely commenting on the inaccuracies of how Casualty notifications SHOULD work according to the DA regs and protocols, as well as my opinion on the information presented overall.

  15. I can relate to your feeling sabrinacking, though on a different subject. Whenever I hear people complaining about how horrible their parents were growing up because their Daddy didn't tell them they were pretty or their parents didn't buy them a car or how horrible their inlaws are because they are overprotective of their child or they want to visit for homecoming I want to scream at them. I want to say " Don't you understand that things could be so much worse? Don't you know that I or my husband and many many other people would have given so much to have a family like yours?! Those aren't problems! You should be so grateful for you childhood and for you parents and inlaws and family!" I get so angry and disgusted when I hear them complain about something so petty. cont…

  16. part 2
    And when I hear people complain about money and call themselves "poor" because them cannot afford the latest handbag I get frustrated but when I hear them say things like "It's their own fault they are poor, if they would just work hard enough…" or "they are poor so they must be lazy." or so many other things I get genuinely angry, I have to excuse myself so that I don't yell at them.

  17. Yes, we can all agree any deployment/separation is hard. True. But the stress is DEFINITELY worse and when your husband/son is being hunted/shot at/blown up nightly vs tucked away in a ship/sub/base/non-combat. Anyone who says differently….well that's just ridiculous! Ask the guys themselves and they'll tell you the same thing. This article points out the general differences, which is just overall more stressful for gunslingers because they are the ones who die.

  18. This article just reminds me of when I worked with missile wing in Minot, and the missile wing commander used to tell everyone that the missileers deployed every single day. I think he changed his tune very soon after the Iraq War started, and they were pulling missileers from the bunker and making them go to the desert.

  19. The Other Shannon | August 21, 2013 at 9:05 am |

    I got chills when I read, "A combat deployment means that you pray to get pregnant on R&R so you have some part of him to keep in case something happens."

    Thanks for writing this, Jacey and Sabrina. There's no possible way to side-by-side compare the affects of combat deployment on every different branch simply because they're all designed to do different jobs, and more importantly, deployments (of any kind) affect each individual in different ways.

    Shame on those of you who came here to pick and gripe about specifics of how commands are notified of WHATEVER. These points are great, solid, and REAL. I appreciate them for what they are: SOMEONE'S EXPERIENCES. How juvenile it is to read these comments of women criticizing and debasing someone else's experiences just because they aren't "textbook."

  20. Navy Deployments are usually six months or longer with a specific mission area or mission task regardless of time spent out to sea. Everything else on a ship is either considered training for ship crew or testing of ship systems. TDY, training, or work ups towards a deployment in the Navy does not count as being deployed. An IA (Individual Augmentation) tour for navy personnel, usually means boots on the ground in some sort of support role for another service( Army/Marine). The Navy does have combat soldiers outside of Special Warfare. Hope this help with the confusion.

  21. I can definitely understand the differences and reading this was helpful. I feel blessed my USAF husband is not in combat on deployment. However, that thinking made me really lax about worrying (after all I spoke to him on FB/Skype almost daily). Then he was severely injured on the job. Air Transportation. Cargo. Seems safe. No guns, no bombs, no terrorists within view. Fairly safe country in comparison to most combat zones. Then I find out he was crushed by a 20,000 pound shipping container. Nearly took his foot off. Could have been so much worse, amazed every day that he isn't dead. Who would have thought I'd have that to worry about on my regular deployment?! I was unprepared for coping with that. Waiting and wondering if they'd ship him home to me. Would he heal, would he get the medical board? Would he walk again? Even scarier, while combat jobs aren't being shot at when they're back home my husband can still be crushed by his cargo. Now I fear every day he goes to work.

    It is all terrible and heartbreaking and terrifying.

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