Soldiers Returning from Deployment: Considerations for School Counselors
By Jessica L. Sniatecki
The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a significant impact on families in the United States. Adverse effects on family life, including marital difficulties and family instability have been attributed to these military engagements (McFarlane, 2009). In order to assist their students, it is imperative that school counselors have a clear understanding of the potential challenges faced when a soldier returns from deployment.
There is significant evidence that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan experience mental health issues (Erbes, Curry, & Leskela, 2009; Hoge et al., 2006; Hoge et al., 2004; Milliken, Auchterlonie, & Hoge, 2007; Seal, Metzler, Gima, Betenthal, Maguen, & Marmar, 2009). Soldiers returning from deployment may experience myriad problematic symptoms, including anxiety, sleep disturbance, relationships issues, hypervigilance, nightmares, guilt, agitation, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and aggressiveness (Bowling & Sherman, 2008; United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009). These symptoms are difficult to manage, particularly because many expect returning soldiers to be happy and content and neglect to realize that “after having to be on guard and hyperaware of their surroundings in the war zone, finding the ability to relax can be a challenge” (Bowling & Sherman, 2008, p. 453). Such symptoms also have significant negative implications for the family unit, since the returning loved one may not behave in a manner that is consistent with the child’s expectations and recollections regarding his/her parent. These changes can have profound emotional consequences for children and may result in problematic behavior in the school setting.
What School Counselors Should Look For
Children may exhibit a variety of reactions to the return of a parent who has been deployed. Age is particularly salient in their adjustment; those who were very young at the time of deployment or who may have been born after the parent was deployed may face the additional challenge of establishing a relationship with a parent that they do not remember. In addition, it is important to remember that their experience may change over time as the returning parent readjusts to civilian life. Young children experiencing difficulty adjusting to the return of a parent may exhibit symptoms including irritability, crying, temper tantrums, separation anxiety, regressive behaviors (e.g., thumb sucking, bed wetting), clinging, fear, and somatic complaints. Older children may exhibit symptoms including aggressiveness, irritability, and rebelliousness (United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009). These symptoms are markedly similar to those seen in situations of grief and loss, and an understanding of this process may assist professionals in their work with children who have experienced deployment. These symptoms can have a profound impact on academic performance; children may experience a decline in achievement and behavioral changes can have profound implications for both academics and relationships with peers, teachers, and other school personnel.
How School Counselors Can Help
Bowling and Sherman (2008) propose four main tasks that families must complete upon the return of a deployed member. These include redefining family roles and expectations, managing strong emotions, re/establishing closeness in relationships, and creating a shared meaning of the deployment experience.
Relationship Issues are Key
Returning soldiers are faced with the task of reestablishing relationships with family and friends and readjusting to civilian life after living in a combat zone. During deployment, it is likely that each family member has changed (at least to some extent) and it will take time to rekindle relationships and reestablish productive family routines. School counselors can help children by encouraging exploration of familial relationship issues, emphasizing flexibility as the family adjusts to life after deployment.
The literature suggests that several months after their return to the US, soldiers indicated a substantial increase in concerns about conflict in interpersonal relationships, underscoring the potential lasting impact of war on the family unit (Milliken et al., 2007). It is imperative that school counselors recognize that the adjustment for children and families is a process that may continue for months (or years) after the family has been reunited. School counselors can assist children and families by normalizing this process and recognizing that reestablishing closeness may take time.
Creating Shared Meaning
It is clear that soldiers face myriad dangerous situations while deployed (Hoge, Auchterlonie, & Milliken, 2006; United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009). In a study involving 894 Army soldiers, 93% reported being shot at or receiving small-arms fire, 89% reported being attacked or ambushed, 95% reported seeing dead bodies or human remains, and 86% reported knowing someone who was seriously injured or killed (Hoge, Castro, Messer, McGurk, Cotting, & Koffman, 2004). Soldiers may mask the reality of their deployment experiences in communication with their families and may be hesitant to discuss them openly when they return (particularly with children), further complicating this family task. School counselors should recognize the difficulty of this process and assist the child in reaching an age-appropriate understanding of his/her parent’s deployment. Family counseling may be particularly helpful for families struggling with this task.
There are many helpful resources to assist soldiers, families, and professionals in coping with the challenges of deployment. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs website (www.va.gov) provides a plethora of information and resources for military personnel and families. In addition, individual branches of the military (e.g. Army Family Readiness Group - http://www.armyfrg.org/skins/frg/home.aspx) have organizations to assist soldiers and families before, during, and after deployment. The “Deployments, Homecoming, Changes, Grief” initiative, provided by Sesameworkshop.org also provides several resources that parents, teachers, and school counselors can utilize to assist children in coping with changes before, during, and after parental deployment (http://www.sesameworkshop.org/initiatives/emotion/tlc).
Bowling, U.B., & Sherman, M.D. (2008). Welcoming them home: Supporting service members and their families in navigating the tasks of reintegration. Professional Psychology:Research and Practice, 39(4), 451-458.
Erbes, C.R., Curry, K.T., & Leskela, J. (2009). Treatment presentation and adherence of Iraq/Afghanistan era veterans in outpatient care for posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychological Services, 6(3), 175-183.
Hoge, C.W, Auchterlonie, J.L., & Milliken, C.S. (2006). Mental health problems, use of mental health services, and attrition from military service after returning from deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Journal of the American Medical Association, 295(9), 1023-1032.
Hoge, C.W., Castro, C.A., Messer, S.C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D.I., & Koffman, R.L. (2004).
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Marmar, C.R. (2009). Mental health impact of Afghanistan and Iraq deployment: Meeting the challenge of a new generation of veterans. Depression and Anxiety, 26, 493-497.
McFarlane, A.C. (2009). The duration of deployment and sensitization to stress. Psychiatric Annals, 39(2), 81-88.
Milliken, C.S., Auchterlonie, J.L., & Hoge, C.W. (2007). Longitudinal assessment of mental health problems among active and reserve component soldiers returning from the Iraq war. Journal of the American Medical Association, 298(18), 2141-2148.
Seal, K.H., Metzler, T.J., Gima, K.S., Bertenthal, D., Maguen, S., & Marmar, C.R. (2009).
Trends and risk factors for mental health diagnoses among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans using Department of Veterans Affairs health care, 2002-2008. American Journal of Public Health, 99(9), 1651-1658.
United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (2009, June). Returning from the war zone: A guide for families of military members. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/reintegration/guide-pdf/FamilyGuide.pdf
Jessica L. Sniatecki, Ph.D., C.R.C. received her Ph.D. in Counselor Education from the State University at Buffalo, SUNY (UB). Dr. Sniatecki currently works at UB as an Enrollment and Research Analyst and has been the instructor of a number of graduate and undergraduate courses in the areas of rehabilitation, mental health, and career counseling in the Department of Counseling, School, and Educational Psychology. Her brother is an active member of the United States Army and served a tour in Iraq. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org