The Washington Post

The Mil Life: Surviving deployment

Jul 27, 2011

Deployments can be hard on the servicemember and the servicemember's family. Ask Stephanie and Starlett for advice, share your own experiences and give advice to others in this hour-long chat.

This chat is part of The Mil Life, an going chat series the Post hosts for military families. The Mil Life chats take place every Wednesday at noon ET.

Ask questions, get advice, share your own experience and weigh in on this military topic!

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Blue Star Families
Military Officers Association of America
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Welcome to The Mil Life. Today we'll be discussing how to survive and thrive during deployment. If you have questions, suggestions, or even comments, please jump right in.

Our guest host today is Starlett Henderson. Star is one of the founders of Army Wife Network, a MilSpouse of 16 years, and a veteran. She is coauthor of 1001 Things to Love About Military Life due out in November 2011.  Welcome, Star!

Hello military families! I'm happy to join Stephanie of Blue Star Families (and to represent Army Wife Network), and I'm eager to take your questions regarding surviving deployment. 

I believe that it is a tough road, whether it's your first or seventh deployment, but many families have found what works for them and I'm happy to share what works for the Hendersons. As well, I hope to share what resources and tools our audience have utilized to not only survive but also thrive. 

Ask away!

This is more about helping service members survive deployment, but what do service members *really* want to receive? How about families?

I can't speak on behalf of all service members, but I know that my husband was always asking for food and my brother usually requests an iTunes gift card or newly released DVDs. They need the personal hygiene items that are so prevalent in care packages, but it is hard to get excited about socks, razors, and soap!

As for families, I love to give something that will help them stay connected during deployments. If you're making a care package, put in some disposable cameras for the kids to take pictures of their own for their mom or dad. Craft items so they can make things to share are also great.  Of course, if you're just bringing something over for your neighbor with a deployed spouse, I know food or an offer to mow the grass are always welcome!

Mostly we find that Service members are looking for a touch from home. A card or letter lets them know you are thinking of them, and if you have any dealings with their family, it's good to report "from the homefront" how everyone is doing.

My husband likes his magazines forwarded and all the do-dads that my daughter did in pre-school and Kindegarten. We filled boxes with that stuff: drawings, graded papers, etc. He also liked anything that helped fill the time. I sent him letter writing stuff, sudoku activity books, and daily devotionals.

As a "lady" who deployed, something sweet smelling for my pillow or some up to date magazines were always appreciated.

My husband's outpost was recently hit by an IED and they were put into a communications blackout while they dealt with the incident. I found out about the incident from a news article one day later. Had I not come upon that article, the 30 second phone call from my husband that he was alive and had to go, would have left me scared and in the dark about what was really happening. I am currently living away from our Post and I was contacted by one of its leaders last month so I know they have my information. However, when this incident happened, I did not receive one phone call or email to inform me about it, nor did I receive a call from a leader to check in to see how I was doing. My question is whether this is typical of FRG groups (I know all are different) to not call all spouses about incidents and if you have seen better procedures to handle incidents like this. I would like to help improve my FRG so that this doesn't happen again. Thanks, Margaret

Margaret - I'm so sorry you had to go through that. I know that there are well organized FRGs, and then there are those that aren't so organized. I think I've been pretty lucky in receiving information quickly. But I'd love to hear what Star's experiences have been too.


This is an issue for sure. Many FRG leaders have a hard time keeping in contact with those who are not "on post" or "in town" (for guard/reserve units). And, the added pressures of keeping info secure and timely are difficult for these volunteers. Still, there is a job to do and that is to keep you all ready and informed.

I suggest that you bring this up and review the process as a group. Some things I've seen work are facebook groups (which have security settings), email lists, and weekly phone conference-lines. You should request that there be a status report given or check-in after the black-out is lifted after every major incident. An email would have gone a long way in your case.

Sorry, but we only learn through our experiences, and now you know what adjustments have to be made. Good luck.

This came up several chats ago and I kept wanting to post this. Several chatters commented that spouses who are teachers have a hard time finding jobs because of state requirements. It might be worth looking into online teaching--that's a job in a growing field that is portable. Hope this helps.

That's a great suggestion. Thanks!

Yes, and if I may, I'd like to suggest They are very familiar with military families who home school and do hire military spouses.

How can I help prepare my kids (13 month and 4) for our first deployment coming up in a few months? My husband is so worried that our youngest won't remember him when he comes back.

This is such a common worry that there have been many "devices" to assist with this situation.

DaddyDolls are a great "stuffed toy" with daddy's likeness and even a place for a voice recording. I kid you not, I have a "Big Daddy!" for me. It's like a body pillow, much bigger than the kids. But, the Daddy Dolls are fun and keep "his face" in front of your little ones. They're snuggly.

Also, daddy can read a book on video to the children. That video can be pulled out whenever they need some comfort and whenever you feel like they need a "visual."  Check out this link for United Through Reading Program through the USO.

Finally, if you don't have a web cam, I'd get one just in case. Or Skype. You won't know your husband's limitations or communications capabilities till he gets where he's going, but do these things to prepare and practice before he leaves. It will help with any "on camera" jitters for the little ones.

We answered this question as a Field Problem at ArmyWifeNetwork before too:

We're one quarter of the way through our fifth year-long deployment and I wanted to pass along some tips for how we survive. I get out of the house every day, even if its just to take a walk around the block. I talk to another grown-up every day (especially important when my children were younger) - adult conversation, even about something like the weather, is vital. We maintain a daily and weekly household routine to provide some structure to our life. We try to have something big to look forward to each month - a holiday, an event (dance recital, birthday party, etc.), or a visit. I try to engage in some type of long term project during the deployment (enroll in a class, take on a volunteer project - one of our friends took on the task of raising a puppy to become a seeing eye dog). I try to take some time for myself on a regular basis (easier said than done) - I find it nearly impossible to be at my best for my children and my husband if I'm not taking care of myself. Most important of all - ask for help when you need it. And offer (insist) on that same help to those around you - no one can do this alone. Thanks for hosting these chats - this is a topic near and dear to me.

I love all of these and now I wish I'd done all of these things!  Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

You are EXPERIENCED for sure. These are wonderful tips and you're such a blessing to pipe in and share them. 

One of the things we always suggest at an Army Wife Network Field Exercise is that the participants find a Battle Buddy. One is ok, more is better. You'd make a great Battle Buddy for someone who has never done this and might have a hard time believing they can. 

I hope you reach out, locally too!

Thanks for sharing.

On keeping connected during deployment - I had to add a few things that have worked well for us and for friends.

A good friend's son sent some lego action figures to his dad and he created a whole "story" for him in Afghanistan with pictures. I loved that idea, so for my brother's upcoming deployment we gave him a stuffed turtle that is a twin of one we have at home. We'll be taking pictures of my boys and their turtle wherever we are and my brother will be doing the same.

Also, I have to give a shoutout to Be There Bed Time Stories.  They do a very similar reading program as well and open their services up for free to Blue Star Families members a couple of times a year.

What types of support are out there for non-spouses? My SO is no longer active Special Ops but is going back as a reservist (currently a govt contractor). He works in a very specialized community that I have no experience in nor does my support network (e.g the first time I experienced him going to Iraq, my friend asked if I was going to go visit him there.) Thank you- I enjoy your chats.

Don't you love/hate that question? I've heard that told before, "When are you going to visit?" It's sad, but some people just don't know because they haven't experienced what you're going through. It takes a "military family" or "battle buddy" to get you.

There are support systems. Our AWN facebook page says "wives" because that's who founded it. We have 30,000+ fans and I assure you they are not all wives, so you can check that out online. Also there is, which is  a blog (with facebook page as well) where you can find other military significant others (marrieds and unmarrieds) sharing their experiences: trials and triumphs.

Because you're "tied" to a Reserve community, I suggest those online resources. But if you're near a post, there are spouse groups that you can participate in, if you just ask.

We are our own advocates, and we have to ask for what we need as well as willingly share our experiences, so civilians know "we don't get to visit them" and "they don't have very much 'private time' to talk on the phone."

I have to say that I think social media can help a lot these days.  At times, I've haunted the MilSpouse online forums from MilSpouse Magazine and Operation Homefront.  Even has one now.  It's a great way to find a battle buddy if you don't live near an active military community.

Also, I love to read blogs from other military spouses. It helps to remind me that we're all in this together and helps me feel a sense of community no matter where I am.

I'm not from a military family, but I guess I am part of one now after my military brother in law married my sister earlier this year. His first deployment to Afghanistan is coming up in a few months. How do I support my sister through this? She's not close to a lot of other military spouses (by choice), so sometimes I worry she doesn't have enough support. However, my efforts to talk to her about it always make me feel like I'm prying where I don't belong and there's nothing comforting I can think of to say. Any advice would be appreciated!

My first advice is "Don't ask, just help."  Call her every couple of days just to chat.  If you live nearby, drag her out for coffee, shopping, or just a walk.  But the most important thing is that she knows you're there for her. Just talk.  Even if it's not about the deployment, if she knows you're there for her, she'll turn to you when she needs help.

I'm actually facing something similar. My brother is deploying to Afghanistan soon and this is his new wife's first experience with the military. And he's in the National Guard so there isn't a big military community where they live.  I wish she lived nearby, but I'll have to offer support via phone and email!  I'd love to know if any of our readers have suggestions for offering support long distance.

I now deem you "mother hen." I'm pretty sure that's the phrase. 

You can help make a list of individuals who are good at various things who are willing to:
make a meal
watch children (long and short term)
call in weekly
send cards
mow lawn

These people are aware ahead of time what your sister will be going through (a deployment) and have volunteered to help. That's the battle. So often I worry about asking for help, because I know others are overwhelmed and have their own "plate." 

But, these people will be pre-coordinated and will be "easy to find" when your sister needs to call someone "now."

Also, maybe read and send her a few books like Elaine Dumler's series and Shellie Vandervoorde's Separated by Duty | United in Love. These are favorites of mine. Also the devotional books by Jocelyn Green can be such a simple gift that doesn't take time and can feel less intrusive. Those books can be found at our Amazon bookstore:

I hope this helps.  You're a great sister to be planning ahead.

One @armywifenetwork twitter follower suggests: "Jerky, toothpaste, baby wipes, gum, sheets, ground coffee and pics of family/friends of course! That's the legal list."

See the last item, again "something from home."

If there are special occasions coming up, we have a great page with TONS of ideas. "Care package" is the most commonly searched item at our website and blog (

Here is the link to empower you with more care package ideas than you'll know what to do with: is an Army Wife Network favorite as well!

iTunes gift cards, toiletries, and such are READILY available to anyone not living in the most remote of FOBs. In fact, you can get most toiletries FREE from Combat Stress. Sounds like you just read up on the topic on the internet. You know that those deployed (except, again to the remotest COPs) have the internet and APO boxes now don't you. So they can order anything they need... I say this as a current deployee and someone that has been deployed for 5 years since 9/11... Send something they can't get anywhere else.

Of course they can order anything they'd like. But we all know that's more expensive.  I know my brother won't be purchasing his own iTunes gift cards when his wife is pinching pennies back home. So when he tells us that's what he wants while deployed, I take him at his word.

I'm going to have to assume that not everyone agrees with you!

Not everyone has internet. That is not the case with a few I know currently deployed. Every situation is different. 

Sure service members can get a whole lot in some areas. I send my husband gift cards as a way of just saying..yeah I know we're pinching pennies, but still go and take care of something you want.

My brother recently asked for Vernor's. My dad said, "I just sent him some." And I said, if he's asking for it...send MORE!

Most often we are going to be sending packages to the people we know and love. We know what they want and they hopefully will share with us what they want.

As far as sending cards and toiletries to those we don't know...I always appreciated the thought and know that their toiletries were much more "plush" than what I could get in country.

My co-author from 1001 Things to Love About Military Life, Holly, says that if we were meant to "be alone" and "do life alone" we would have been put here on earth, alone.

That is not the case, if you feel it is, please do your best to reach out. Say what you're going through, to the people who might understand you online or "next door" and you'll be surprised what they do understand and how willing people are to help.

Thanks for the opportunity to share with you and I hope you all stay safe and know that AWN and BSF are here for YOU!

That's all the time we have for The Mil Life today, but join us again next week at 12pm EST for another great discussion

Thank you again, Star, for joining us today. As a veteran Army wife and co-founder of Army Wife Network, I figured there weren't many questions about deployment that could stump you!  Thank you for your wisdom and advice.

We'll see you next week!

Thank you for asking!

I loved helping.

In This Chat
Stephanie Himel-Nelson
Stephanie Himel-Nelson is the communications director for Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit supporting military families. She left her career as an attorney to advocate for military families three years ago and hasn't looked back. Stephanie grew up in the military as an Air Force "brat" and she is still immersed in the military life. Stephanie's husband recently retired after 20 years in the Navy and her brother, a former Army soldier, is now serving in the Ohio National Guard. She lives with her husband and two boys, ages 5 and 6, in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Starlett Henderson
Starlett Henderson is an Army veteran and military spouse of 16 years. Since leaving the military, she worked briefly as a budget analyst with the Department of the Army and later returned to school to earn her Master’s of Arts in Professional Counseling. Her desire to return to service for military members and their families drew her to join cofounder Tara Crooks in building Army Wife Network.

The AWN web site is the home base for Army Wife Talk Radio, spouse seminar series Field Exercises™, and many other interactive empowerment tools for Army wives and families. Listen to Star and Tara weekly on Army Wife Talk Radio, the original internet talk radio show for Army wives, by Army wives! There is a new show LIVE every Monday night at 8pm EST and podcasts archive for many, many weeks.

Star has devotionals published in the most recent edition of the Battlefield & Blessing series, Stories of strength and courage from the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. And, she is coauthor of 1001 Things to Love About Military Life due out in November 2011. She is a recently admitted fellow into the FINRA Foundation Military Spouse Fellowship Program.

Star and her husband have two children. They are stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
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