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Families face more challenges when military parents return

By Linda Saether, CNN
updated 1:36 PM EST, Fri December 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For returning troops, getting back into the family dynamic is not easy
  • 1st Lt. Jeremiah Lynch struggled transitioning after a deployment to Kuwait
  • The ADAPT program teaches parents tools and techniques to make reintegration easier
  • When parents bare emotional and physical scars, communicating more helps

St. Paul, Minnesota (CNN) -- For 1st Lt. Jeremiah Lynch the golden day of coming home from a lengthy deployment in Kuwait was everything he had dreamed it would be.

"The day I came home from deployment was just euphoric," recalls Lynch, who is part of the Minnesota Army National Guard. "It was fantastic. Somebody dropped me off at home, and the kids are all running out and hugs and kisses."

But as Lynch had been warned the honeymoon welcome home period would soon be over and hard work lay ahead.

"Yes, the first day back is just a fairy tale, of course. And then you have to start trying to put yourself back into the life of your family."

"And of course they've been working with you gone for a year, and they've changed how they do things. I was advised to expect that and also to try not to come back and suddenly be in charge. I didn't listen to that advice."

Lynch, who has been with the Guard for seven years is married and has three young children, Janna, 9, Galiana, 4, and Frederick, 3, who was born while Lynch was deployed. He knew of many of his friends also deployed were going through tougher times. Divorces were not uncommon, nor were separations.

His wife Erin offers some advice: "It's not like if there was anything broken before deployment, it's all of a sudden going to be fixed."

Mrs. Lynch knows what she is talking about. She's in the armed forces and was herself deployed during 9/11 to Kosovo. She admits it's hard to seamlessly re-introduce a spouse who has been gone for so long.

"Welcoming the old husband back, it's a brand new feeling of 'Yeah you're new, and I like you and you smell nice," Lynch said. "And then there is this 'No this is my routine, and my part of the dresser, and don't take this over.' It's kind of mixed up."

Mixed up all right and entirely too common.

Abigail Gewirtz knows all about the new normal for family life after deployment. In fact she and her team at the University of Minnesota are conducting a five-year program trying to help just those families affected.

"Deployment is tough," Gewirtz said. "It's tough when one parent is away and the other parent is single parenting. But the most stressful time is when families have to kind of reconstitute and parents have to get back on the same page and that can be really tough."

The program is called ADAPT and stands for After Deploymnet: Adaptive Parenting Tools. It's only offered in Minnesota to deployed parents with school age kids. The 14-week class offers skills and tools to help the transition back into family mode. The premise is that if the parents are stressed, parenting suffers and that trickles down to the kids.

"When you have been in combat, there are sights and sounds and smells and even tastes that remind you of terrible things," Gewirtz said, "and so everyone who comes back from an environment where you had to react not respond because you could be killed if you didn't react instantaneously, they'll have to recalibrate their emotional responding."

ADAPT teaches parents to learn to take a pause before they start, for example, yelling at their kids if they drop their backpacks on the floor. Their approach is to take a breath, maybe even leave the room. Then when their initial fear over hearing loud noises has passed, go back to their kids and instruct them in just what want them to do. In this case, put backpacks where they belong.

"Going to the (ADAPT) classes I realized how many things we were doing wrong," said Jeremiah Lynch. The couple completed the program some months ago and gives it credit for making his re-integration back into family life a lot easier.

"Frankly we were turning into the yelling, shouting parents that if a child isn't doing what they are supposed to be doing we just keep saying it over and over again louder to their faces until they comply."

Now Lynch explains he has a new approach. "You can't yell from another room 'Clean your room!' because they're not going to understand that. You have to get down to their level, maybe put a hand on them and look them in the eye and say, 'Hey you need to clean your room right now, please.' "

According to the Lynches, just a few of these simple tools and techniques have greatly lowered the level of stress felt in the household.

Tools, techniques and most importantly communication seems to be at the forefront for making the transition easier on those that have been deployed as well as their families who have stayed behind.

Gewirtz sums it up this way, "When families don't communicate, there is a sense of walking on eggshells especially with someone who has come back with lots of scars. There is a sense that if we talk about it, it will be worse because it's so painful. But our treatment of PTSD indicates that exposure or talking about it is really the key to recovery, and I think that is no less true in a family context."

As for the Lynch family, they are doing just fine. With the help of the ADAPT tools, lots of communication and a good and ever ready sense of humor, they thrive. But on top of that Jeremiah Lynch has some good advice for those soon to be coming home: "Listen to what you are being told about how hard it is, because it is that hard. And don't expect it to be fantastic when you get back. Lower your expectations."

In fact he suggests: "Lower them a lot and then you'll be pleasantly surprised."

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