Military Reintegration: If I Knew Then What I Know Now

T and I are still between 3 and 4 months away from the light at the end of the deployment tunnel. It is way, way too early to be thinking about what the Yellow Ribbon Program has so clinically termed “reintegration”.

But that’s where my head’s at right now. (So deliciously ungrammatical, isn’t it?)

I’ve been fighting it. I’ve tried to force myself back into the deployment coma so that the next three-ish months don’t seem eternal, but so far, I’ve been unsuccessful. It doesn’t help that T is right there too, which is completely uncharacteristic of him. He’s a roll-with-the-flow kind of guy, but August has been a slow month for our boys over there and, while that is just fine with me, it is making T restless.

Constantly suppressing thoughts of homecoming is getting exhausting, so today I’ve decided to embrace the impatience rather than fight it, and write about reintegration.

When T returned from Iraq in 2007, I attended several reintegration briefings. They were all very much the same. We were handed folders full of pamphlets containing pictures of families with children or soldiers hugging their wives. The pamphlets gave very general advice, such as Be Patient or Expect Unusual Feelings.

Really? I should expect unusual feelings? Good thing I read that pamphlet or I would have had no idea what to expect.

Oh wait. I did have no idea what to expect.

The briefings made it sound like every soldier was going to come home with PTSD and could potentially freak out with very little provocation. From what I could gather, T was going to want to sit with his back to the wall and facing the door in every room he entered; he was going to dive out of the way of each piece of blowing trash; or he was going to withdraw completely and start drinking heavily.

Which would be rather amazing since T has never touched a drop.

I understand that the briefings are designed to prepare us for what could happen. And I certainly appreciate that these things do happen to some soldiers. I know that providing resources for them – and their families – is important. But, for me, all the briefings did was scare me half to death.

Exactly who was it that was coming home to me? According to the briefings, someone very, very different than the person that had left fifteen months before. In spite of the fact that I had talked on the phone or IMed with this mystery person almost every day, I began to get very, very nervous.

What I hadn’t realized was that I’d already experienced some reintegration issues when T was home on leave that September.

Reintegration Issue #1

It started when I went to pick him up at the airport. I waited anxiously in the small crowd, ready to tackle him the moment I saw him. When he came out of the terminal, I gave him a nervous smile and went to wrap my arms around him.

He gave me a one-armed hug and spoke the first words that we’d shared face-to-face in six months.

“Ready to go?”

I was crushed. What happened to all the visions of soldiers in uniform picking up their girls and spinning them around in sheer joy? Ready to go? What the hell was that about?

What I didn’t know then was that when T had landed in Atlanta earlier that day, there had been “greeters” waiting to escort groups of soldiers over to the USO office. They led the soldiers the long way around, through throngs of people, calling out loudly and repeatedly, “Ladies and gentlemen! Soldiers returning from the war!”

People had clapped and cheered, but T was mortified and embarrassed. He didn’t know where to look or what to do and he had dreaded a similar scene when he got off the plane at home. Which is why he’d wanted to hightail it out of there. Only I didn’t know that.

Reintegration Issue #2

Once we got safely and unobtrusively out of the airport and into the parking garage where T deposited his duffel bag in the trunk, he did give me a two-armed hug and a kiss.

Slightly mollified, I drove out of the garage and onto the highway towards home. I reached over to hold T’s hand and started talking to him. A couple of silent minutes later, I looked over and saw him with his head lolled back, fast asleep.

Um, excuse me. I haven’t seen you in six months and you’re sleeping within five minutes of our reunion? I knew it was long and grueling trip from Iraq, and I knew that he hadn’t been sleeping well previous to that, but where was the adrenaline over seeing me again?

Apparently it was seeping out of his half-opened mouth and snaking its way down the side of his face. Jerk.

Before you go judging my man – a right that I reserve solely for myself – here is the explanation (if only I had known it then!):

The mission that T and his platoon were assigned in Iraq was convoy escort. This meant that for the past six months he had spent his days trying to sleep during the hustle and bustle of base life, and his nights, after curfew was enforced, riding in a huge Humvee guarding supply trucks and the like. It was dark. There was no one else on the road. The seats in the Humvees put the passengers well off the ground and maximum speed was 35 miles per hour.

When T got into my little Hyundai Elantra hatchback and found himself low to the ground zooming through traffic at 75 miles per hour, it was a bit of a culture shock.

“I knew we were safe,” he explained to me later. “And that you could drive just fine, but my inclination was to start giving you orders. The only way for me to avoid doing that was to close my eyes and go to sleep.”

Which he did. Every single time he got in a car during the entire two weeks he was home.

And that was just the beginning.

That leave was rough. It was real rough. And I didn’t fully understand it until much, much later when we talked about it. Those reintegration briefings certainly hadn’t prepared me for these types of communication breakdowns.

So now I find myself thinking a lot about what little snags we’ll have to figure out this time. We’re in a very different place than we were last time, so I’m not too worried about it. I know now that we can work through it, whereas last time I thought each argument spelled Splitsville for us. More like, I find it interesting to think about.

But I do wonder how things will have changed for us. I didn’t notice anything when he was home on leave in May, but was that just love being blind?

What about you? What reintegration issues have you noticed or struggled with after deployment? What did you do to overcome them?

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4 responses to “Military Reintegration: If I Knew Then What I Know Now

  1. My husband is not a soldier but he is a businessman who travels every week. When he’s gone one or two days there is little problem when he returns home, but after longer trips we have our own reintegration issues. For starters, I get annoyed when he makes a mess in “my” house. He’s mad that there’s no cream for his coffee, but I take it black so why would I have any? I find that I’m easily angered by any little thing for the first day or two. I realize soon enough that I am carrying resentment over his absence, leaving me to care for the dog and the kid…he missed the ENTIRE chicken pox when he was gone for ten days when our son was four–or call a plumber or shovel the snow or fix the transmission in the car, etc., etc. I can only imagine how tough it is for you two to get back in synch with one another. Good luck! Very well-written post, by the way.

  2. I found myself nodding and saying “mmm-hmmmm” until The Hubble asked me “what?” I ended up reading him the part about the car. He had the same issue when he got home this last time. Their job was route clearance and their maximum speed was about 10mph trying to find IEDs. So when he got home and I was driving 30mph around a bend he freaked out and thought I was going way too fast. I had to try to logically explain to him that I wasn’t going faster than the posted speed limit.

    It is difficult. I don’t know if you have seen this blog:

    http://armyspouseami.blogspot.com/

    But he’s been talking a lot about reintegration. His wife just returned home from war and he’s going through all the things that reintegration entails. It’s very interesting. What I got from him that meant a lot is the idea of needing 1 week for every month that the spouse is gone for reintegration. It made a lot of sense because it took about 3 months before I felt comfortable with The Hubble being home again. We’ve finally worked through things but it’s not easy.

    We went from him being gone for a year and a half to a school environment where he was home ALL THE TIME then when he did go in he would come home at like noon! It was driving me crazy! LOL!

    Great post! Sorry I practically wrote a blog post in the comments!

  3. This post had me laughing AND crying! We are reintegrating right now, and even though its the second time it isn’t really any easier. I found myself worrying for months before he came home wondering what the issues would be, what we would fight about etc. hoping I could find some way to avoid it but there is no avoiding. You just have to get through it.

    P.S. I friggin’ HATE the people at the Atlanta airport who parade the soldiers around. It pissed me off every time I had to see it, but most especially when my husband was LEAVING and they still paraded them around. I was like really? This is the worst day of his life, and mine, can you not try and make a spectacle of their misery? Ugh!

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