By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan, May 10, 2011 – Certain phrases are classic in the Army vocabulary: “Drink water.” “Get a haircut.” “Drop.” And time and again, in briefings and formations: “If you have a problem, talk to the chaplain.”
Seven chaplains and chaplain assistants are assigned to Task Force Currahee here with the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. They gathered May 6 to listen to unit experts discuss the problems the brigade’s soldiers are likely to experience as they redeploy to their home station at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Army Chaplain (Maj.) Randal Robison, the brigade’s senior chaplain, said he organized the conference to give the religious support teams -- one chaplain and one chaplain assistant per battalion -- time to prepare for the critical last few months of the deployment and the several high-risk months of reintegration that will follow.
“Our objective going in was to begin with a kick-off meeting,” Robison said. “We wanted a clear vision of what we’re looking at during redeployment and even after -- while we’re still in the midst of very kinetic operations.”
The teams heard from the brigade’s command team, psychologist, surgeon, safety officer, operations officer and logistics officer about how, when, and where soldiers will cycle back to their home stations, and the risk factors they’ll encounter as they gradually resume their normal lives in garrison.
Army Capt. Trish Shanahan holds a doctorate in psychology and spoke to the chaplains about the factors that can cause problems for soldiers and families after a deployment.
“Basically, redeployment is stressful,” she said. “It’s just as stressful as deployment -- and that’s one thing your soldiers might not realize. Coming home is stressful.”
Soldiers returning from a year deployed face professional challenges, the brigade psychologist said: adjusting to different responsibilities, command structures and work environments from those they grew accustomed to in Afghanistan. More significant for most, she said, are the personal and relationship issues that come with returning to families, significant others, pastimes and surroundings they’ve been away from for 12 months.
“It’s abnormal to go to war and to come home from war,” Shanahan said. “What’s normal is not feeling right, feeling uncomfortable, feeling a little out of place for the first couple months after you get home.”
Sleep disturbance, irritability, depression, and difficulty concentrating or remembering things all are common reactions, she said.
“And, of course, we’re all going to feel jumpy,” she said. “There’s going to be a door that slams, a car that backfires, and we’re going to feel [anxious].”
Infantry soldiers may miss the excitement of deployment, Shanahan said. “They didn’t go into this job because they’re not an adrenalin junkie,” she noted.
Family and romantic relationships also will be different, she said, noting that while many of those changes may be positive, some won’t. “Some spouses will have jumped ship,” she said. “Some spouses are going to have cheated.”
Those issues will “slap soldiers in the face” when they return home, Shanahan said.
“Those, I think, are going to be our highest-risk personnel for acting out,” she said. “Might be self-harm, might just be risky behavior -- drinking, driving.”
Any change is stressful and can create an increase in disagreements, she said, but such reactions are a “red flag” if they reach the point where someone is in danger.
Shanahan outlined some communication strategies religious support teams can use to coach soldiers and spouses: communicate openly, don’t be critical, recognize the other’s efforts and contributions, show appreciation.
“We’re going to have to reinforce that in our Currahees when we get home,” she said.
Relationships with children have to be re-established after homecoming, she said, noting that depending on a child’s age, his or her reaction to a parent’s return can include fear, reluctance or indifference, or a child may be overly demanding and clingy.
Shanahan said parents should repeatedly tell children how happy they are to see them, praise them for helping out, provide reassurance, share appropriate stories about deployment, show interest in the child’s activities and meet acting out with understanding, not necessarily punishment.
Single soldiers are likely to try to make up for time lost on deployment, Shanahan noted. They may isolate themselves, or might “rush out, get a girlfriend, talk about marriage and want to have kids all within three months of coming home from deployment,” she said.
In general, managing expectations and taking things slowly are two approaches that can help soldiers deal effectively with what can be an overwhelming period of adjustment, the brigade psychologist said.
“Life goes on without you back at home, just like life goes on here,” she said. “Patience is key.”
Brigade safety officer Mike Rude outlined for the teams what previous Army redeployments indicate are the greatest dangers facing Currahees once they get home. Automobile and motorcycle accidents top the list, he said, and speeding, alcohol and fatigue all contribute to the risk.
To help in managing the risk of motorcycle accidents, Rude said, the brigade will require all motorcyclists returning from Afghanistan, no matter how experienced they are, to take a two-hour refresher riding course during their first week of reintegration before taking a motorcycle out on the road.
Rude said once the unit reaches Fort Campbell, leaders at all levels must remain as vigilant as they are here.
“What’s most important? Enforcing the standards,” he said. “It’s all about attitude.”
Following the morning’s briefings, the religious support teams spent the afternoon sharing strategies they are planning or already have used to ease redeployment issues in their own battalions.
Robison said a major task for the chaplains and assistants is to help soldiers begin to look at their families in a different way during this final quarter of the deployment.
“Those soldiers that are married will be able to start working things now, so their marriages will be as strong as they can be,” he said. “Single soldiers, too, have supporting elements we want to try to pull together.”
Army Chaplain [Capt.] Christian Groenendal, 801st Brigade Support Battalion, described a 40-day program he has used to focus spouses’ attention on each other over 40 days of email exercises. The program involves both soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and their spouses at home, he said.
“The feedback that I’ve gotten has been really, really good,” he said. “It gives people something tangible to do each day for their marriage, to get their mindset back to being at home.”
Each team received lists of facilities and phone numbers available for returning soldiers and families at Fort Campbell, from Military OneSource services to mental health resources. Redeployment briefing templates, dates of major brigade movements during the return, individual soldier assessment tools and other information were distributed to the teams to help them prepare for their roles during the coming redeployment.
Robison encouraged his junior chaplains to pass along the information they learned during the conference as they speak to the soldiers and leaders of their assigned units.
He said the chaplains enjoy great support from their battalion and brigade leaders, who along with the chaplains are working hard to make the brigade’s return from this deployment safe and successful for everyone involved.
While the brigade is still in the midst of ongoing, kinetic operations, Robison said, the redeployment planning conference “allows us to step back, look at our soldiers and families and see what we can do to coordinate and facilitate, starting now, so that they can have a successful reintegration.”