The Challenge of Reentry

Coping with Years of Deployments

Leigh Ann Bowman has served her country as the spouse of a career Army helicopter technician. She recently shared with Legacy Beyond Valor what life was like while Scott was deployed and the challenges they faced when he returned. Our hope is that her words may help others understand the mind of the soldier and find peace and contentment during times of deployment.

Timeline

  • Scott and Leigh Ann married in 1981.
  • Three years later Scott enlisted in the Army.
  • He spent 14 years with the Active Army (most of which was spent in various Cavalry units) maintaining and bringing helicopters back to life.
  • Following his departure from active duty in 1999, they remained in Colorado where he served in the Colorado National Guard.
  • While with the Colorado National Guard, Scott deployed to Kuwait for one year.
  • After accepting a position in 2004 as a military technician, he transferred to the Army Reserves and Conroe, Texas, where he continued to serve for another six years – 15 months of which he spent deployed to Afghanistan.
  • Timing placed him in the National Guard at the time of 9/11, and his deployments increased dramatically. During one five-year period, he was home sporadically a total of 16 months out of that 60-month period.

Live Fire

Through his 25 years of service, Scott moved up the ranks to Sergeant 1st Class. He was once awarded the Bronze Star.

Fortunately, as a member of the aviation support team, Scott was never directly involved in any hand-to-hand combat during his deployments. However, his FOB repeatedly took fire from rockets and mortar rounds, during which the entire FOB would take cover in bomb shelters. His only direct combat exposure came during his deployment with the Third Armored Division during the Gulf War when he was positioned right up front. Leigh Ann couldn’t tell me much about that time because Scott still doesn’t talk about it.

Far too many families are dealing with the aftereffects of combat injuries. Leigh Ann was very blessed to have her soldier deployed to a combat zone for a total of four and a half years without severe injury. However, we want to acknowledge the thousands of soldiers who were not as fortunate, and we thank you for both your service and your sacrifice.

Relocations

Compared to many military families, the Bowmans have been fortunate in the number of times the Army relocated them during Scott’s enlistment: Colorado Springs, Germany (during the Gulf War), El Paso (where Scott spent a year unaccompanied to Korea), back to Colorado Springs, then Conroe, Texas, and, finally, Kansas.  Each time held its own challenges and insights into different cultures.  The challenges for families during these moves cannot be described. They are the ones who are uprooted from their community. Their soldiers continue doing what they have been doing and their lives go on. Spouses give up jobs, homes, and their support network. Children give up homes, schools, and friends they have barely had time to get to know. Now they are starting over again. It can be very challenging for military spouses to find employment because of the frequent moves.  

Deployments

Leigh Ann could not remember exactly how many times over Scott’s 25-year enlistment he had been deployed or away from home for months on end, but she believes he has been gone a total of at least eight years of their 37-year marriage. He was actually deployed more while with the National Guard and Army Reserves than with the Active Army.  Timing was a big part of those deployments because they followed 9/11.

Scott’s deployment to Afghanistan was 15 months long, and Leigh Ann considers that their hardest reentry. She explained that, as the maintenance supervisor for all the Apache helicopters in the unit spread over two FOBs, he had a considerable amount of stress.  At one point, he worked 45 days straight with no days off, working 14 to 16 hours a day.  He managed the maintenance flow charts and flight schedules for 10 aircraft, and he felt a tremendous burden for the safety of the helicopter pilots as he trained their maintenance crews.

Scott told LeighAnn that no one flew any guard helicopters without his direction throughout the entire deployment. Much like auto maintenance, there are items that must be checked on scheduled intervals, so before a helicopter leaves base, its maintenance schedule must be checked. If it is going to fly for five hours but is due for an oil change in two, that helicopter is unavailable. The same is true if an incoming helicopter is scheduled for maintenance. Another helicopter must be ready to take its place. These schedules are critical to the safety of everyone on board, and that weighed heavily on Scott, both while he was deployed and even more so when he was home.

“PTSD” or “Reentry”

When asked whether she and Scott had ever dealt with the effects of PTSD, LeighAnn replied, “Yes, but they never called it that. They just called it ‘reentry.’” Every reentry was rough, and some more so than others. She believes the severity of reentry issues depends on the job Scott was performing at the time and the amount of stress he was under while deployed.

“Don’t get me wrong. Scott loves me and wants to be close to me, but there is part of him that misses that combat environment.” Leigh Ann shares. “He’s spent every waking moment, fast paced and on mission for an entire year with these same people.  It’s a closeness that cannot be recreated at home in the U.S., with Wal-Mart down the street.  They have a longing for that team mission and adrenalin rush.  TV and video games just don’t get you there.  But the truth is, we’ve all changed.  And even when the crew/team get back together on American soil, it’s still different. In a way, comforting, but still different.”

Overcoming Rough Reentries

I asked Leigh Ann what she did to overcome these rough reentries, and she replied, “Well, my first answer is going to be prayer because that’s what it was. The hardest reentry was his return from Afghanistan with his Army Reserve Unit.  What made our situation more difficult in Conroe was it was the first time we had lived in a non-military community.  Members of his Reserve unit were spread out all over the Houston area.”

“No one understood what we were going through when he got home. Nobody had friends or neighbors who knew what we were going through. One day while I was at work at a local church, I was experiencing an extremely stressful time, and another employee responded, ‘Well, we just can’t relate to that. I’m sorry.’ My heart just wanted to scream, ‘Well, okay, but I’m still going through it, whether you can understand it or not.’  And when he’s gone, I felt like a third wheel at most gatherings. People tend to keep a distance because they don’t know how to relate to your struggles and they don’t know what to say or do.”

“When you live in a military community, close to a military installation, your friends are experiencing the same issues, and they understand exactly what you are going through. The movie American Sniper did an amazing job of portraying what spouses go through during deployment and the emotions of re-entry. Scott and I didn’t go through anything more than any other couple. It isn’t just because Scott had a high-profile job. It’s the cooks, too. Everybody goes through something similar when they return home. The person you sent away is not the person who comes home. There are little idiosyncrasies that change over time.”

“People tell me all the time, ‘Oh, I understand,’ and they’ll say things like, ‘My husband was a truck driver. He was home every other weekend, and I got a phone call every day.’ Well, I’m lucky to get a phone call every other week. Try to have a relationship that way. And when I do get to talk to him, he doesn’t have time to listen to my day or my issues which he can’t really do anything about anyway.  You just try to hit the highlights.  He’s got a really important mission to run. So, you just suck it up, buttercup. At least you have physical contact, a snapshot of married life. I’ve got a phone call and sometimes a Skype date.”

“When the guys do come home, it’s like you’re having your honeymoon again for the first three weeks. Then one day you look at him and say, ‘When did you start doing that?’ Or ‘that’s really annoying.’ And you’ve changed, too. I’ve had to run this place by myself since he’s been gone. Family drama, bills, home maintenance, emergencies – the list goes on.  Even though he doesn’t know the routine here at home now, I must let him try. It’s about the ego.”

“I learned early in life some wisdom about men – and it must be twice as hard for a husband who has a wife in the military when she comes home because we have all of these emotions.  Guys are real simple creatures. You just need to feed them – feed their bellies, feed their egos, and feed their libido. If those three things are being fed, they’re happy campers. Women…far more complicated.”

“But, Scott is dealing with me, who is not so simple. So, he’s really frustrated. We have been in counseling after deployments – not generally right after because he’s not ready. I’m always ready, but he’s rarely ready for that. What helps us is being active in a church home.”

“And, honestly, this was the other part of him coming home. The military is kind of a filthy place to live. The language, all the cheating and porn – it’s a gutter. You can’t go live in a gutter and not smell like poop. There have been embarrassing times. He’s so used to hearing profanity, he doesn’t even hear it. He’ll say something inappropriate and the hair will stand up on the back of my neck, especially if we’re in front of our church friends. We are both embarrassed. It’s not really him. It’s just because he’s lived in the gutter for so long. It’s hard to brush off. I almost don’t want to take him out in public before I can clean him up, but I can’t be his mother either. It’s difficult and frustrating. It takes a lot of patience, and a lot of it is grace.”

“There are times when we get back in the car that I may bring it up because I can tell he is totally oblivious. Other times, I can look in his face when he says it, and I know he realizes what just happened, and he’s totally embarrassed. That’s knowing each other well enough to be able to read those things.”

“One time while we were living in Conroe shortly after he returned from deployment, we were in our truck when someone cut him off. Scott just snapped. He just snapped. I don’t know how else to describe it. He’s usually a mellow guy. We were on his bumper. Scott actually tapped his bumper on purpose at the stop sign. Fortunately, the guy sped off. I asked Scott to pull over, and I asked him, ‘Can we calm down? You just scared me to death! Did you even stop to think that he might have a gun in the car and could have killed both of us?’ He said, ‘No. Okay. I get it.’ Situations like that put me in a bad place as a wife because I feel like I’m scolding a teenager.”

The Greatest Struggles

When asked what about separation caused the greatest struggles, Leigh Ann had these thoughts: “We don’t have kids. I can’t imagine being a single mom while my husband is deployed. I have two Pomeranians. I’m a pretty independent woman. Some of it was because I had to be, but I was born independent.  I know my way around a tool box.  I can’t think of time when he was gone that something didn’t break or quit working.”

(Writer’s note: LeighAnn is an expert carpenter, can remodel her home, including walls, floors, backsplash, and tile. She does everything outside, including jack hammer to remove cement. Her pantry has shelves specifically designed for the size of cans or boxes it holds, as does her closet for DVDs, CD and VCRs.)

“But I still had to learn to adapt. My circumstances as a military wife can change any minute. He can come home and tell me to start packing, but then the orders change. And they can change five times in eleven weeks. I’ve learned to accept and just tell him to let me know when the movers should be here.

“I’m an extrovert; I need to be around people. So, I think coming home to an empty house, too much quiet, is the hardest for me. Whereas, Scott is an introvert. For him, he just loves peace and quiet and being by himself. Working outside the house helped me with the need to talk with people, and attending church events also helped, but there’s a part of you that feels like half of you isn’t there. It’s hard to brush off the fact that almost everyone has a spouse with them when you do not.   And yet I’m still a very happily married person….just by myself at this moment, making it hard to fit in even among friends.”

The Decision to Separate From the Army

Next, I asked Leigh Ann about Scott’s decision to leave the military for the last time (sort of).

“Too many deployments. He was getting too old for this. He was broken. It was painful. And the military was changing. Of course, Clinton decimated it. Bush had no time to rebuild. Then we went into the Obama years of social experimentation.” And the jury is still out on the Trump administration policies.

“So, Leigh Ann, did social change bring about a mass exodus from the military ranks?”

“Absolutely. The seasoned warriors or veterans just said ‘Forget it. I’m done.’ They can’t even raise their voice to them in boot anymore. Can’t hurt their feelings.  The ones Scott is working with now on the helicopters don’t seem to know anything. They can’t even read a book. He’s teaching them what they should have learned in AIT. But when you get in a work situation, there are consequences. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t fly a four-hour mission on this helicopter that is two hours from a phase.  But Scott knows that, if they have to, they can bring this other bird up by cannibalizing this other one while they are waiting for another part.”

“In the early days after 9/11, when he was deployed to Afghanistan, he was dealing with guys who have never been deployed. He and his Captain were the only combat veterans.  Scott is a good leader.  He started with a group of young soldiers with no real experience and by the time they got home, everyone wanted ‘his boys’ in their units.  In fact, we still keep in touch and call them ‘his boys’ and they call him ‘Papa Bear’. Now they’re spread out all over the United States with families of their own, and some have gone on to become pilots.”’

“When he retired from the Army Reserves, Scott took a job with the Department of the Army, Civil Service, known as AMCOM (Aviation Missile Command). He’s a LAR – Logistical Assistant Representative – between the military and the manufacturers of the helicopters.”

“He still goes out on deployments with AMCOM, but the deployments are only six months long. There is no real pressure on him. He’s an adviser. They don’t work for him; he doesn’t work for them. He’s not supervising anybody.  Scott says that his deployments as a civilian are a lot less stressful.”

“They come to him with issues the book doesn’t talk about, or maybe they need to modify something on the helicopter. One time a General wanted to use the telephone on the helicopter. Scott deals a lot more with the engines and the blades, but they do have specific LARS that do electronics as well. So, he is there to help make decisions and give guidance on things that break or that they want to modify. Weights and balances, or if they nick a blade. He can tell whether it’s safe to fly. That kind of thing. He’s a government anomaly. He saves the government money by fixing things instead of replacing them. If they need parts, he can try to expedite getting them.”

Advice to Others

“And our last topic, Leigh Ann, will be in the advice column. With 25 years as a military wife, do you have any advice for those in the middle of it right now?”

“Buckle up and hang on. Get used to change. If you can’t handle change, you’re not going to last long. Get out in the community. Get to know other military friends. Take advantages of the resources available to you as a military spouse. Get familiar with the chain of concern, which is like the chain of command for the guys. The wives have a chain of concern. Everybody has all their phone numbers. They call and check to see if you need anything. When an emergency happens, they are there for you. The military is a tight-knit community that protects and takes care of each other. When you find yourselves away from that, you find yourself alone.”

Final Thoughts

“I worry about the generation coming after us because they’re used to getting their way, and the Army’s not about that. You must be flexible. The hurry-up-and-wait is always going to exist as long as we have government. They can’t always tell you everything. They can’t always articulate it. Our nephew, who also served in the Active Army, has been through a lot. War is not pretty. We’ve been at this a long time now, so there are a lot of guys that are deployment weary. They’ve been away from home way too much and seen things that can never be erased from their memories. They’re so hardened and the rest of the world has gotten so soft, it’s no wonder we have two different versions of what the U.S. is.”

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LeighAnn, thank you for taking time to share  what life is like as a military spouse. On behalf of the team at Legacy Beyond Valor, thank you for your service, and please thank Scott for his service as well.

 

 

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