“While I deployed, my parents let me talk, share what I wanted to share, just told me over and over again that they loved me and were proud of me, and didn’t ask too many questions. They took care of each other as best they could, and never burdened me by asking me to explain or convince them of anything.” –a soldier’s comments on his parents’ support.
Every year on Remembrance Day, a mother of a fallen soldier is rightly honoured for her sacrifice for the country. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have a son or daughter head off to war knowing they might be injured or die in battle.
Once again our young men and women are going to war. Canada has recently deployed a fleet of nine Royal Canadian Air Force planes and 600 military personnel to Kuwait to join the US-led war on the Islamic State (ISIL). Dozens of Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) Special Forces have also been deployed to northern Iraq.
Many parents are left searching for ways to support their child.
One young soldier, who wishes to remain anonymous, provided me with some insightful comments on the type of parental support he needed. He deployed to Afghanistan twice, at 23 and then again at 25. He emphasized that his opinions are his own and in no way represent those of Canadian government.
Here are my questions and his answers:
What can parents do to reduce the stress of their soldier?
There is not much that parents can do to directly lessen the stress that soldiers face. However, they can listen, be attentive and let their soldier vent.
More than anything, I needed to believe that my absence was not causing undue hardship. This allowed me to focus on the job and not get distracted thinking about trivial things at home. It took every ounce of physical and mental energy to get the job done. E-mails and phone calls that let me know that life back home was normal were a big boost. Care packages are also awesome.
On the other hand, parents have a tremendous power to ADD to the soldier’s stress. To avoid this:
- Do not pathologize the soldier’s experience. Many of us can do our jobs under the worst imaginable circumstances without any issues with coping, or reintegrating back home. While Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may be as high as 30 per cent, depending on the statistical source, more than two-thirds will be absolutely fine. When telephoning your soldier don’t ask: “Are you OK?”, or “How are you holding up?” These questions imply that the soldier is not doing fine, and will typically be met with one word answers. “I’M FINE”. Something neutral like: “Anything interesting happen today?” is a much better conversation starter.
- Respect the fact that some topics are off limits. Nothing about future operations should be discussed for security reasons, and possibly, current and past operations as well. Some soldiers have been charged and punished for posting information on Facebook that revealed troop movements.
- Accept that many soldiers cope by not talking about how they feel. Many of us prefer to bury it deep inside until we get home when we can unpack and process our experience in comfort and safety. The jury is still out on whether this is a good long term strategy, but it remains popular, so while we are deployed, don’t pry. Just because we don’t want to talk about our experiences as they happen does not mean we never will. Patience is a virtue.
- Don’t judge. If a soldier does open up, it’s because they trust the person they are confiding in will not be critical. Soldiers invariably develop an incomprehensible sense of humor and fatalism while repeatedly faced with danger. Parents certainly don’t have to force a laugh at our tasteless jokes, but they should try not to be mortified if we manage to find humour in fatal vehicle collisions. They are effective coping strategies, and help to keep us sane in an insane situation.
- Save the political discussions of the mission until we get home.
What should parents do or say or not say when they are opposed to either the particular mission or to military intervention of any sort in a foreign country?
My dad didn’t really think we had any business being in Afghanistan, while my mom couldn’t understand why I thought I needed to be the one who went.
However, my parents trusted that I was making good decisions, and was being led by conscientious and humanitarian minded officers. They understood that I was trying, in my own way, to do what they had always taught me: leave the world a better place than I found it.
Some of my colleagues’ parents were openly angry at their children for deploying, while others genuinely wanted their children to convince them of the merits of the mission. Lots of parents support the mission once they learn their child will be deployed. Many soldiers will not have the language or information to engage in a debate, and may just respond with a shrug. It’s unlikely that parents’ hostility to the mission will deter a soldier from deploying, but it will likely result in fewer phone calls home.
What should parents do to help themselves while their child is on a mission and in danger?
STOP WATCHING THE NEWS. Remember that “NO NEWS, IS GOOD NEWS”. It is normal that there may be no news update about the mission for a while or that parents do not hear from their solider for what seems like a long time. This not an indication that anything is wrong. It probably means their soldier is busy doing his or her job.
Parents will be notified of any bad news in person. The military never telephones with this information, so there is no need to panic every time the phone rings. The military notification system guarantees that the next of kin will be notified long before names are released to the media.
My parents were great. They took care of themselves, built a support group of other parents of deployed soldiers, and didn’t pry. While I was preparing to deploy, they were preparing themselves as well. They made friends with other parents of soldiers, and told their friends that they were about to go through something very difficult. They tried to understand the specifics of my job, where I was going and the nature of the mission.
Once I was home they gave me a big hug, and threw the biggest surprise home coming party that I never wanted. I was pretty furious because I specifically told them I didn’t want that, but soon realized that the party wasn’t for me, but for them. They needed to celebrate the end of what they had gone through. Once I realized that, I grudgingly behaved myself.
Did you ever feel the need to reassure your parents that you would be fine? If so, was that an additional burden for you?
Yes and yes, every time we spoke. Nothing they said made me feel that way, but I knew that parents worry. My parents put on a good show, and did their best to keep it together while on phone, but I knew it was hard for them, especially during the second deployment when I understood what they went through the first time. My mom didn’t sleep well for seven months while I was gone. Although she didn’t complain, I felt I had to help her deal with it.
My mom watched the news constantly, and every time there was an incident she wanted to know if I was there. I knew she needed to know that I was safe and sound, so my response was always that I was nowhere near it, with near being a very relative term.
The vast majority of the time when I told them I was safe, it was true. The times that it wasn’t, they could tell. On those occasions, I pretended that I was safe and they pretended to believe me.
Probably the hardest part about being deployed, especially the first time, was neither I nor my parents had any idea what the other was going through other than that it was tough. Soldiers think they have it rough because their lives are in danger, or at a minimum, living under very austere conditions. Parents also think they have it rough because they are living with information blackout and are powerless to do anything about it. It’s important for both to realize that each has a role to play in supporting and understanding the other.
The hardest thing I ever had to tell my parents, was three months after returning from my first deployment, that I was going back. They were devastated. My mom clearly told me that she didn’t think she would survive another deployment. They were very open with me about how difficult their experience was. This was important for me to hear, although at the time, I didn’t want to hear it. As both deployments were voluntary, my Dad could not fathom why, after all I had been through, I would go back. I couldn’t really either, but I felt there was still work to be done. By the time I had finished further training a year later, my parents and I were back into “let’s do this” mode. It wasn’t any easier for them the second time around.
The Military Family Resource Centres are located across the country and offer support to families of soldiers. You may also be interested in the National Defense and Canadian Armed Forces video providing tips to parents of soldiers.
Do you have any experience with a deployed soldier? Please respond in the Reply Box below.