What Can Families Do to Help Returning
Service Members?

Families for Depression Awareness for Care for Your Mind

Adjusting to home after deployment can be difficult for service members and their families. Service members undergo life-changing experiences while deployed and, of necessity, create their own support groups – families, if you will. The situation back at home can be awkward – or worse – for all involved. It will probably take time to rebuild relationships. And for most, life and relationships will be different than they were prior to deployment.

We are used to seeing that, in most situations, family involvement yields better outcomes for people receiving mental health care. According to Ch Watkins, the best steps the family can take to make it easier to return home are to give time and space. Other than not making significant changes (even décor, layout, and expensive purchases can be a big deal), family members would do well to either inform returning military members about such changes or wait before implementing change. Many times, the member wants to simply see everything as they left it. This can provide a sense of immediate comfort. Even in her own experience, there were some changes she liked when she returned, but there were others that gave her great pause. Being a pastor and counselor made her understand that her husband was simply trying to surprise her in a good way, but everyone may not have this ability to separate, particularly when coming from a hostile area.

With regard to the family’s role, Ch Watkins offers these ideas:

  • Be cognizant that your loved one has been through a life-altering event
  • One of the most important things you can do is listen
  • Be supportive, but don’t challenge, pressure, or accost
  • Do not ask, “What’s wrong?” but do ask, “Are you okay?” and “Do you want me to help you?”
  • Be open to facilitating – but not providing – mental health care.

Ch Watkins also has suggestions for other non-military people, including faith leaders. The mistake that many make is to say, “I understand.” She says, “Unless you have been in the military and been deployed, you really can’t understand. You are not going to be the person that they will want to talk to.”

Ch Watkins says, “I have not been a part of many diverse civilian faith communities to see how veterans are embraced. However, from my tradition, I have seen so many respect my experience and thank me for my continued service. One idea that may send a strong message of thanks and gratitude would be to send boxes to the troops in celebration of a specific troop. For instance, one of the items I loved seeing come to the chapel were handmade greeting cards for all occasions. I could send them back for birthdays, Christmas, and other special occasions. We get to send these for free, so there is nothing like getting a nice card to write a message for your parents, spouse, or a special friend back home. Of course, there are other items that can be donated. Anything can bring a smile, especially when it is not expected. It could be great to surprise a troop with a package if you know they are deploying, and maybe add another item for a friend. It is not always the gift, but the thought that counts.”

She continued, “Personally, I have done my best to look for training opportunities and projects that will help how I continue to serve in my role as a chaplain. Even though I did not serve in a severely hostile area, there are still those stories and testimonies I remember. My job is to ensure everyone has the right to their own pursuit of happiness while wearing the uniform…through emotional, psychological, and spiritual support. When I was working for a staffing agency directly after deployment, I purposely looked for veterans that we could hire. Even after I resigned to pursue other opportunities more closely related to ministry, I always suggest that my Airmen contact someone at Aerotek. They gave me a chance, so I know I can count on them to help others. With that being said, mental health issues are also exacerbated by under-employment and unemployment when we discuss veterans. Having an employer that understands their needs, or at least, is willing to try and work to understand is important. More than this, volunteering, donating to the USO, and simply paying it forward to a deserving vet can sometimes make the difference.”

How can members of faith communities help?

  • Listen
  • Be available and approachable
  • Become familiar with resources and contacts for military Veterans, then steer them toward resources
  • Thank the people who have served.

Note from Ch Watkins: If people are interested in sending packages to Al Udeid (we house a lot of transient troops moving in and out; also the chapel has a ministry called Jack’s Place that keeps items for free), please send them to:

Victory Chapel
379 AEW/HC, Unit 61201
APO, AE 09309-1201
United States

Resources

Your Turn

  • How can civilian faith communities support returning service members and Veterans who are dealing with mental health issues?
  • What have you done or what do you want to do to support the mental health of members of the military or Veterans?

Bio

Chaplain (Captain) Dianna N. Watkins is the Interim Wing Chaplain at the 164th Airlift Wing in Memphis, TN. Her responsibilities include managing various aspects of faith programming. Earlier this year, she successfully completed a tour of duty Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Ch Watkins is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She entered the USAF in January 2009.

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