Watching Him Walk Away—Deployment Day

“For 10 deployments, I never stayed until the very last moment. I thought it would be too hard…you know, watching him walk away. But this time I did and I realized my instincts had been right all along. For me, I’d rather be the one walking away than the one that gets walked away from. For me, it was just too hard.”  This is what Ashley* told me after her husband Brendon* deployed to somewhere in the Middle East a few weeks ago.

U.S. troops deploying

Brendon leaving (photo credit: his wife, Ashley)

The other reason this deployment is different is because it will be Brendon’s last. He will retire soon after he returns. Like many troops, Brendon has also been gone from home many times for various training exercises and classes. This makes Ashley anything but a newbie in the Good-Bye Department. Like many spouses, she tries to help support those who are facing their first separation. And, as Ashley begins her last time going through this, she shared some observations with me hoping it may help others.

They need to know you’ll be okay

Every relationship is different. But at Brendon’s deployment, I saw two ladies on their knees sobbing. And I’m not judging, but it’s hard for me to see how totally breaking down is helping the person who is deploying. I think your spouse needs to know that you’ll be okay. Again, everyone is different so, maybe that’s what works for them.

But I know for sure what doesn’t work—getting mad at the person deploying for not spending enough time with you before they leave. Things get very busy before they go. It’s not easy for Brendon to see and do everything he wants. Feelings can be hurt. But calling someone deploying as they board a bus to yell at them? Trust me. Not helpful.

I have a friend who found out on very short notice that her husband was leaving. They’re high school sweethearts and this would be their first real separation. She asked me if she should take a few days off from work. I said ‘no’ because you being home alone is going to be worse than you being at work.”

The first 3 weeks are the hardest

The “firsts” are tough. Like first time walking in the door—with the silence. Going to bed and nobody’s there. It’s hard to sleep for the first few weeks. I don’t hear him breathing, I don’t hear him snoring. It’s funny to miss the snoring. Ashley laughs when she tells me that every time he leaves she wishes she would’ve recorded the snoring.

I asked Ashley what she found most helpful in this situation. “I think it’s finding a new routine that works for you. I need to add something new. If I just keep doing the same things we always did, I miss him even more.”

I asked her if this explained the new puppies she just got. She laughed again and said, “Exactly!”

Go to the support programs

Ashley attends the monthly get-togethers for spouses and kids who have a parent away on deployment or extended TDY (temporary duty.) She strongly recommends that every spouse find out what programs are available to them and to take part. “It breaks the normal routine and everyone around you is going through the same exact thing you’re going through. Makes people feel that they’re not in it alone.”

I asked Ashley if I could have Brendon’s address so I could send him warm wishes or a care package. She said that would be great. I’m hoping it will also be one more thing that helps them not feel alone.

*names changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Orders To Nowhere

The Army will be getting smaller, down to its pre-WWII levels. The Air Force is looking for volunteers for early retirement. Every branch is making cuts. That means more troops will be transitioning back to civilian life. They’ll have, as Mike Grice puts it, “orders to nowhere.” Are they prepared? Are we?

Mike Grice retired from the Marines (although, “once a Marine, always a Marine”) and he took notes along the way. Whether a servicemember chooses to leave or is forced to because of budget cuts, they will face a big transition. And Mike’s notes can come in handy.

I first found Mike when he was sharing his journey dealing with the VA in his blog, Orders to Nowhere. When I reached out to him to help me with a soldier, he was generous with his advice. Recently, I learned a great deal more about his return to civilian life because he pulled all his notes together in the book, Orders To Nowhere. From getting out, figuring out what’s next, to dealing with the VA, it’s insightful, specific, honest, and from chapter 3 onward, there’s a recap and checklist of lessons learned. It’s more than his memories and experiences; it’s a guide that gives needed clarity to an often confusing and complex process.

Whether in his blog or book, I feel Mike’s writings are one way he continues to serve. (Lately his blog has been a great resource for transition news from various sources.)

Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Grice USMC (Retired)

After an amazing career he loved, after four combat deployments in five years among other things, Mike woke up one day and knew it was time. It was time for him to leave his military life and start a new chapter—one that no longer required his family to make the sacrifices they had been making.

He assumed retiring would be simple and that nine months was plenty of time to transition. He was wrong. I must admit I laughed when he reviewed his official checklist of things to do. The first item was—get the official checklist. Less funny, the second item began with, “12-24 months before separation…” Mike had just started the process and he was already behind. 

Things I assumed would be easy, like getting your medical records in order, were not. As you can imagine, 0 doctors recommend carrying 100 lb. of gear on your back for extended periods of time, breathing in burning garbage, getting shot at, etc., as a health regimen. There are many things our troops do that cause wear and tear on their body and/or psyche. All of this must be meticulously updated and confirmed if the VA is going to provide any healthcare for these injuries after a servicemember leaves. However, it can take months to get appointments (wow!) and, since our troops move a lot, it can take time to track down certain documents. Oh, and don’t assume all records have been digitized for quick emailing.

Things I assumed were obvious when it came to resumes, interviews, networking, and that sort of thing, apparently are not obvious. That makes sense. If you’ve never done it, why would you know how? A military career has different norms, rules, and types of documents. Mike points out that when people ask a servicemember what they intend to do next, “get a real job” is a popular answer. But it’s not the right answer if the person you’re speaking with could be a potential contact in your new career. A better response is the “thirty-second sound bite” that has real goals and substance.

I like the honesty Mike has throughout his book. Including wisdom from another vet who endured a tough transition, John Ruehlin. John created a course with his lessons learned and one is, “First and foremost nobody in the private sector really cares what you did in the military. They care about what you can do for them in the business world.” This does not mean that what you learned and accomplished in the military doesn’t matter. However, you do need to frame it in a way that’s meaningful to the private sector.

Mike’s notes 

Mike went from being an officer leading Marines in combat to just another guy in khakis at a transition meeting who had no clue how to proceed. In his book, he’s upfront about what he did right, what he did the hard way, and the moments that were bittersweet. He also admits that if he knew then what he knows now, he would’ve been even better able to serve and mentor those he had the honor of commanding as they returned to civilian life.

The volunteer work I have done is focused on those who are deployed. But as troops I’ve met begin to transition out, this is an area I want to learn more about. If you or someone you know is considering leaving the military, I think getting Mike’s notes are a great first step. Even before you get your official checklist.

You can find Mike's book at Amazon.com

You can find Mike’s book at Amazon.com

© Gina left the mall, 2014