You may feel that deployment is in the distant future, but time marches on at a predictable pace. In what will seem like the blink of an eye, you'll be ugly-crying on the pier watching a big grey ship disappear onto the horizon. That's how it was for me, at least. Objectively I knew I was saying goodbye at a certain time, but knowing what's coming and accepting it are two different beasts.
Most of us recognize that deployment itself can be stressful, but the days leading up to deployment present their own challenges. This is all part of the Deployment Cycle. Tensions run high during pre-deployment, and there's A LOT to do.
No matter how much you love your spouse or how great things are, I guarantee that you and/or your spouse will feel so emotionally raw that you snap at one another at least once during this process. Knowing that this is a possibility is half the battle.
One of the best ways to set yourself up for a more peaceful departure is to plan ahead. As a former Ombudsman and current military spouse, I've learned a few things that might help this process run more smoothly for you.
1. Get your paperwork in order
This is going to sound morbid, but you both need a will. You never know what life will throw your way, and having a will just means that if the unthinkable happens, you'll already understand one another's wishes. I know it's hard. Get this one out of the way early.
In addition to a will, make sure that you have a Power of Attorney (POA). A general POA will cover many situations in which you could have to act on your significant other's behalf, but many situations require a special POA. If you plan on making any major life changes related to banking, buying or selling a home or car, or moving in or out of government housing, you'll need a special POA. If your spouse has guardianship over a relative or if you're looking after a step-child when your partner is away, you may need special POAs for those situations as well.
You may want to consider having a person who can make decisions for you in case something bad happens. If you get sick or have an accident while your spouse is out, who can make decisions about your medical care? Who will take care of your kids/ pets/ affairs until your spouse can return? Plan for the worst, but hope for the best.
Luckily, service members and their families have access to legal services on base that can take care of all this for free. They can give you the best advice about documents you should have. Every POA that I've gotten has been valid for one year, so make sure that you're covered for the duration of the deployment.
2. Put things on autopilot as much as possible
If you aren't doing so already, consider setting up autopay on bills that the service member usually handles. This does not mean that you should set it and forget it, though. Be sure to set aside at least one day per month to review the month's Leave and Earning's statement (aka military pay stub/ LES) as well as outgoing bills. I can only speak from experience with the Navy, but sometimes the internet connection on ships can be a bit slow or restricted. Your service member may not necessarily be able to commit to checking on accounts all the time.
3. Communicate about communicating
Speaking of not being able to commit to checking on accounts, you'll want to talk about communication expectations with your significant other. Before my husband went out to sea for the first time, I knew that comms could go down on the ship without warning. Even though it was a bummer when I couldn't talk to my spouse, at least I understood what was going on. Every command/mission/ platform can create different communication barriers, so ask your spouse what those might be. Keep in mind that your partner may not always know what those barriers will be.
In addition to understanding communication obstacles, my husband and I discussed how each of us would approach communication assuming that communication was possible. We talked about the time constraints he has during deployment vs. my time constraints at home. Needless to say, our capacity to chat was a bit uneven. He reached out as often as he could, and I sent him a message every day. I accepted that I would probably write him lengthy messages he wouldn't have time to respond to fully, but at least I could keep him in the loop. (I'm also a fan of dropping an old-fashioned letter in the mail now and then. Make sure you get your significant other's deployment address.)
You may also want to talk about what kinds of things he'll want to hear. Many pre-deployment meetings will recommend not inundating service members with a bunch of problems he or she can't address. This is because some spouses put an incredible burden on service members through excessive complaining. (See Tip #7 for how to address complaints.)
My spouse and I have an agreement that I will be 100% honest about whatever is going on. This comes with the understanding that he shouldn't have to deal with it, and I will handle every problem to the best of my ability. Other couples prefer not to bring up certain issues until after deployment. They just deal with them, and the service member finds out about the Great Washing Machine Flood of 2017 or the October Oven Debacle when they get back. Whatever you decide, remember that if your communication becomes super stressful or upsetting for the service member, it could make it hard for them to complete their mission safely.
Having kids at home creates another set of communication concerns. Create avenues for your spouse to communicate directly with kids. Creating a special email account just for your kids and spouse to communicate is a good option. United Through Reading can record service members reading a story to kids so that they can listen to it during separations. You can also record a message from him/her and put it into a special deployment teddy bear. Your kids may not always have the vocabulary to express how they feel about the situation, but goodbyes are hard on them too.
4. Talk to your families
Families can offer incredible support during deployments, but they can also unwittingly step in it from time to time. Families need to know the basics, like how to not violate OPSEC/ PERSEC. This means that no matter how proud Mom and Dad are, they shouldn't be online discussing deployment information, information about the service member's job, etc. Ask that they keep pictures from port visits, homecoming countdowns, and other specifics private.
In much the same way you need to discuss communication expectations and realities with your significant other, it's not a bad idea to do the same with family. Their experience as family members will not be the same as your experience as a spouse, and that is okay. They have lots of emotions and concerns that they're grappling with, and you can do a lot to help.
They need to understand that their service member may not be able to answer the phone, call regularly, or send and receive emails. Some relatives will understand. Others will give complain to you about how aloof the service member seems. (The worst offenders are people who think they understand military life even though their experience is limited at best.) Just remind those people about aforementioned limitations, and carry on. You can't please everyone.
Discuss how communication will flow. I periodically passed general status updates to my husband's family while he was away. Since I had more time than my husband and I occasionally had the chance to speak to him on the phone, I was usually had plenty to tell them. He emailed them directly on occasion as well. His parents trusted that communication lines were open, and this made deployment easier for them.
You also might want to set up communication protocols in the event of an emergency involving the ship. Often people make themselves frantic trying to get info off the news. Reassure them that you will communicate with them directly when you receive information through official channels. The news doesn't always get it right, and this can be distressing.
5. Think about what to cut
When your partner is gone for an extended period of time, you'll probably have the option to hit pause on some services they use. The big one for us was my husband's cell phone. He wasn't able to use it underway at all, and in port he simply connected to WiFi to look up the information he needed. Most companies are happy to support service members by letting them pause subscriptions they won't be able to enjoy on deployment.
6. Set a deployment budget
I'll do a whole post on this at some point, but for now just know that it's a good idea to talk about a deployment budget for both of you. How often will the service member stay in a hotel during port visits? How much should they allocate for things like souvenirs? Will you be sending care packages? What types of spending limits will be imposed on both partners during this time?
The right answer to this depends on how much you're making, what your priorities are, and what will be healthiest for both parties. For example, during a port visit, it's a given that my husband will spend at least a night or two off the ship. I think that's important for him to do, and he likes to take a short break from the place where he lives and works every once in a while. It's in our budget.
If you have kids, you may want to add some money in your budget for childcare. No matter how amazing your kiddos are, sometimes you just need a day to yourself. Whether you want to have a full-blown spa-day, or you just want to run errands on your own, you'll thank yourself for budgeting for this.
7. Identify support systems
Who are the people you can call when you-know-what hits the fan? When you need to vent, who will you call? If you have kids, do you have a friend or relative who can watch them if you are sick or just need a break? Everyone's support system looks different, and that's okay. It just has to work for you.
Prior to deployments, most commands host a pre-deployment meeting. This is a great opportunity to ask questions, learn about what's to come, and learn about new support resources.
For Navy families, the Ombudsman is a critical resource for you to have access to during a deployment. Ombudsman are command-appointed representatives that serve as a liaison between command families and the command itself. They are the ones who are going to be able to give you official information passed down from the command or big Navy. They will be able to connect you with Navy-endorsed resources to help you overcome the obstacles that sometimes arise over the course of Navy life. You can find contact information for your Ombudsman through the Ombudsman Registry. (Each branch has its own version of this person, by the way.)
Military OneSource is another must-have resource for military families--especially during deployments. They can help with just about anything that comes up, and they are available 24/7.
Remember that you can look outside the Navy for support too. There are a few military spouses that I know I can always count on to help me out, but I also have my yoga friends who have nothing to do with the military. Sometimes you need a person who understands exactly what you're going through, and sometimes you need to interact with amazing human beings who aren't dealing with deployments and underways themselves.
8. Spend time together
With all the stress during pre-deployment, it's easy to forget what you really ought to do. Prior to deployment, schedule some time to do something fun together. That could mean taking a mini-vacation or even just spending the day watching movies or playing games together. Do what makes you happy. Make great memories! Those fun times will help you prepare for the separation.
Remember to breathe
Deployments are an inevitable part of military life. Know that each deployment carries its own set of challenges. You may have gone through several deployments with no problem, and then this one feels like the worst thing ever. Nobody said this would be easy, and no matter what anyone tells you, you had no idea what you signed up for. I wish I could promise that it'll always be smooth sailing, but I can't. I can assure you that you are not alone. Just like time marches steadily toward the departure date, it will eventually bring you to the day your service member returns.
I tried to be thorough, but I know I didn't get everything. What are some things that you think people should have on their pre-deployment checklist? Let me know in the comments below.