How to Prepare, Cope And Recoup
When eight year-old Elizabeth Kruse had the chicken pox, she wished her dad could be home to make it all better.
“It’s times like that when we really miss him,” said Elizabeth’s mom, Susan Kruse. Her husband Scott was in the second month of a year-long deployment to the Middle East, serving in an Army medical brigade.
The Kruse’s “battle of the bumps” highlights a difficult reality: When America’s servicemembers leave to defend freedom around the globe, their families must soldier on without them. And, in most military families, the spouse left behind must bear the weight of keeping a household running – from paying the bills and balancing the checkbook to caring for children and working full-time.
As seasoned military spouses will attest, the challenges of deployment start well before departure, and can continue even after a loved one’s safe return. But with preparation, patience and an open mind, you can keep yourself and your family on solid ground before, during and after a deployment.
Before Deployment: Prepare To Prevent Crises
Darla Crawford wishes she and her husband Tim had been better prepared financially for deployment. Married only 26 days before Tim shipped out for Iraq, the couple still had separate accounts, from credit cards to cell phone providers. Darla was left to sort out the mess and scramble to avoid late payments.
“My financial responsibility doubled when Tim deployed,” Crawford said.
Crawford’s situation shows the need to plan ahead, since deployment can happen at any time. Take time now to sit down with your partner to create a deployment action plan for your finances, instead of managing a crisis later. These tips can help get you started:
Figure out finances. Do you know which bills get paid each month, when they’re due and how much money is in your savings account? If not, it’s time to take a crash course in “family finance 101.”
Understanding your family’s financial situation, including monthly bills, how much debt you owe and how much you have for emergencies will protect your credit score and your sanity. Even one late payment can affect your credit report negatively. To make sure all bills get paid on time, take advantage of online banking services or automatic payment plans.
Revisit insurance policies. It can pay to dust off your life, auto and homeowners or renters insurance policies to find out if they are up-to-date or need to be changed due to deployment.
Crawford found that their policies needed an overhaul. “We canceled my husband’s renters insurance policy for his on-base apartment, since he would no longer live there. And I added him to my employer’s life insurance plan, since SGLI coverage wasn’t enough to cover our needs.”
If you decide you need additional life insurance, make sure the plan covers a combat-related death. Many policies won’t.
Put it in writing. A marriage license doesn’t always guarantee legal access to your deployed spouse’s financial accounts, assets or belongings. Make sure you’re listed as a joint account holder on all accounts, such as credit card or checking accounts, so you’re authorized to make changes and get information.
Then, go a step further by contacting your local JAG office to create or update a durable power of attorney, which allows you to manage legal matters for both of you, such as refinancing your home. At the same time, create or update your wills and healthcare directives to make sure your wishes are carried out.
Track down discounts. Money can be tight during a deployment, so take advantage of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which gives active duty military members – including mobilized Guardsmen and Reservists – exclusive benefits such as reduced interest rates on credit cards, mortgages and auto loans (if the debts are incurred prior to entering active duty).
Since some military families experience financial hardship in the spouse’s absence, several banks offer interest-free mortgage assistance loans to help. Some insurers also offer reduced auto insurance rates for cars that will be stored.
“We were able to cut our auto insurance payments quite a bit since my husband wouldn’t be driving during his time away,” said Kruse.
Strive for saving. When money is tight, it’s tough to save. But time is the biggest asset you have when it comes to growing your savings. If your credit card debt is under control, begin saving for an emergency fund – three to six months of living expenses – in a savings or money market account.
Then, start contributing to a retirement savings plan, such as a Roth IRA or the government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Set up automatic withdrawals from each paycheck to make saving easier.
In addition, the military’s Savings Deposit Program, which is great for short-term saving goals like a down payment on a home, allows servicemembers in a combat zone to contribute up to $10,000 and earn a guaranteed 10 percent annual interest rate. The money must be withdrawn within 90 days of return.
During Deployment: Seek Support, Stay Connected
Getting ready for a deployment is one thing. Dealing with one is another.
Kruse notes that “there’s not necessarily one big challenge about having a deployed spouse. It’s all the little things that add up.”
Taking care of yourself and your family, while keeping the lines of communication open, can help bring balance to life’s ups and downs.
Just say yes. Friends and family, support groups and the military itself always are ready to extend a helping hand. According to Kruse, part of the challenge is overcoming the reluctance to reach out.
“Most of us have people around who want to help, but for some reason we feel we have to do everything ourselves,” she said. “My advice is to let your friends and family help you.”
Find power in numbers. Organized support groups offer a great way to connect with others in similar situations. Most military installations have family centers that host events and recreational activities for spouses. And groups like the USO and the National Military Family Association have spouse programs as well. Online communities, such as CinCHouse.com, also offer a haven of support, allowing military spouses to share concerns and find advice.
Crawford, who attended briefings hosted by her family readiness group, suggests learning more about your spouse’s military unit. The groups bring the unit’s family members together to provide support and assistance and help them to cope better with the stress of deployments.
“They provided updates on the unit’s activities overseas and information about benefits, emergency contacts and more,” Crawford said. “You learn about what they’re doing over there and, most importantly, when they’re coming home.”
Keep in touch. Keeping in contact with a deployed spouse isn’t easy, especially with limitations of time zones and poor phone connections. Double-check contact information and have an emergency contact plan in place. You can call your family assistance center, which can put you in touch with the American Red Cross or Rear Detachment Commander to have emergency messages delivered.
Avoid confusion with letters and e-mails that may not arrive in order by numbering them – 1, 2, 3, etc. Shop around for the best rates on phone cards for you and your spouse. While phone calls may be short and infrequent, even a minute can make a big difference.
Bridge the separation. Keeping kids involved can help them feel less separated. Try hanging a map of the world with the deployment location marked, and encourage children to send their own letters or drawings to Mom or Dad. Talk about your spouse in everyday conversation and avoid using the past tense.
Stick to routines. Continuing to enforce the rules of the house also is important to maintain a sense of order, particularly with children. Letting bedtimes slip or allowing excessive junk food may score points now but can wreak havoc in the long run. Holding children responsible for household chores not only makes life easier for you, but it also gives them a sense of accomplishment in doing their part.
After Deployment: Allow Time For Change
While you and your spouse likely counted the days and minutes until your reunion, the homecoming itself may be a new source of stress.
During your months, or even years, apart, you each had new roles and responsibilities, learned new skills and perhaps made new friends. Your kids grew and your routines changed. Getting back to the life you knew before deployment, or adjusting to a new one, will take time.
Exercise patience. If your spouse was accustomed to being in charge at home, he or she may be surprised to find you’re running a tight ship. Psychologists and family advisors say patience is the best way to ease back into a new routine. Give yourself and your partner time to get back into the rhythm of being a family again.
The same advice applies to friends. It’s best to take it slow when introducing new friends and reconnecting with old ones.
Give children time. Returning fathers or mothers may be hurt when young children turn away or seem to be afraid. Even older kids may act distant to a “new” authority figure in the house. Give your spouse and kids time alone together, and encourage your children to be open and honest about their feelings.
Get back to business. Discuss what has happened with your finances, as well as the new roles you assumed. You may consider talking with a financial advisor to develop a plan and get any problem areas back on track. Some financial services companies offer a free financial assessment to get you started.
If you made changes to any insurance policies, you may need to reinstate or update your coverage.
Prepare for the next time. As long as your spouse serves in the military, there could be another deployment in your family’s future. Once the dust has settled, talk about what went smoothly during the deployment and what could have been handled better. By updating your deployment plan while the experience is still fresh in your minds, you and your spouse can avoid making the same mistakes twice.
Armed with knowledge and experience, you’ll be ready the next time duty calls.
Military.com Deployment Center
USAA Family Reference Guide To Deployment
Military and family support services:
Air Force Family Support Centers (FSC)
Army Community Service (ACS)
CinCHouse.com (serving military wives)
National Military Family Association
United Services Organization (USO)
Emergency financial assistance:
American Red Cross
Air Force Aid Society
Army Emergency Relief Fund
Coast Guard Mutual Assistance
Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society