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Phoenix Forward

5 ways families can prepare for servicemembers' return home

A soldier is greeted by a loved one

With today's long deployments overseas, the transition from wartime soldier to stateside civilian can be difficult — even traumatic — for servicemembers and their families. Long separations, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, fundamental differences between military and civilian life, and a host of other factors contribute to these challenging transitions. But military families can take proactive steps to help make their loved ones’ return to the homefront easier.

1. Develop a transition plan ahead of time.

Stateside family members can begin planning for their loved one’s return well in advance, while rolling with unexpected challenges as they happen, argues Marilynn Irvine, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and area chair for the University of Phoenix Master of Science in Counseling program. Irvine is also a Military Family Life Consultant (MFLC) specializing in assisting active-duty military personnel and their families with reintegration efforts. “Reach out to support resources and other military families who have been through the transition, and educate yourself on what to expect,” she says. “Be realistic about those expectations, and include each other in planning and decision making, rather than making assumptions about how things ‘should’ be.”

2. Recognize that the shift from deployment life to home life will be a shock at first — for everyone.

"Reintegration following deployment is by far the biggest challenge for both returning servicemembers and their families,” says Irvine. She also points out that returning servicemembers can feel like strangers in their own homes, while their partners and children must also spend time readjusting to the new family dynamic.

3. Keep the lines of communication open.

“Open communication is everything,” says Irvine, who stresses that returning servicemembers often crave “alone time” after long deployments, which can cause conflict with family members wanting more connection and help with domestic chores. “There can be a conflict of needs that can turn into a contest of wills between family members without communication,” she explains.

4. Acknowledge the servicemember’s unique talents and capabilities, and find a way to utilize them at home right away.

Returning servicemembers have a strong need to feel purposeful, and families should plan accordingly, according to Irvine. “When on deployment, soldiers’ day-to-day lives are very structured and purpose-driven,” she explains. “There is a sense of understanding of one’s role and what is expected on deployment, whereas when soldiers return home, they often feel aimless. Families can help by understanding the significance of this transition." Irvine suggests giving the returning servicemember specific household tasks to complete and emphasizing their essential importance.

5. Give everyone time and space to “grieve” and adjust.

Upon the return of the servicemember, “there’s an initial period of positive excitement, followed by an awareness that everything has shifted,” says Lynn K. Hall, EdD, dean of the College of Social Sciences. “Do the necessary work to re-establish the family unit. It’s very important not to expect that everything will be wonderful automatically.”

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