I was asked the other day about how members of the armed forces cope with extended times away from friends and family.
This is a hard one.
I can really only speak for myself you see, but I am well used to being away from my family and friends…it’s part of the job you see.
Whether it’s a short, couple of days, away on a course for something, or else a long term full Out Of Area (OOA) detachment – it’s something we are all pretty much used to. You see, we do it fairly often, it becomes almost second nature.
That doesn’t make it easy – but I think it’s easier for us to cope with a lot of the time than it is for the loved ones left behind. I certainly found it that way when I did my two OOA trips, in the past. It’s been a while since I did one – and I am pretty sure that on the list for going away my name will be pretty high up – but I found it easy to slip into a routine.
You see, quite often when away from home, the detachment – or det – turns into some sort of “Groundhog Day”, where things are sort of the same from on day to the next – you get up, have breakfast, go to work, have lunch, go “home” have dinner, maybe get to a bar or social (if available), and then go to bed…all ready to be repeated over and over again.
It’s often nicer to NOT have any days off. Certainly when I was out in Saudi I didn’t want time off – I wanted to be in work, because the time passed a bit faster there when you were busy than when you were trying to find something to do. Indeed, when I was in Italy, it was nice to get some time off to go and visit in the local area but even that began to pall after a while and whilst you had a good time…time went faster when you were in work.
It’s because work gives you some structure and form for the day. You know what you are doing, and what you are there for. You have an aim and you often get to see a real outcome from it. Not just another “training mission” is achieved, but something real happens. And that is ultimately satisfying…
I think in our job, the real hardship is to those people who are left at home when we go away. They have to try and continue with their normal daily lives but suddenly find it much more difficult.
Instead of two people to help in that “after tea time rush” of sorting out the washing up and bathing the kids and getting the dog walked and the lunchboxes for the next day sorted…there is suddenly only one person to do it. And that person also has to deal with trying to explain what is going on and where Daddy or Mummy has gone to children who are often too small to understand it.
There is support available now – and God knows it’s got a lot better over the years – but often people live away from base, in their own houses and not of married quarters, and so the on-base support network is often limited. Often they are miles away from their family too, making that sense of isolation very intense.
And here’s the thing. When I go away I feel guilty. And as I live away from home in the week, I know this right now – without having to go OOA. I feel guilty that my G/F is home with the baby, and having to deal with all that brings – particularly as she herself is in the Army working at Selly Oak…so she has all the same military pressures as me, as well as the family pressures and very little support network. I feel guilty that she has all that to do. She has to sort out herself, sort out food, sort out the baby and then get ready for the next day…all before she can relax…and there’s me with just myself to sort out, and then I can veg in front of Modern Warfare 2 on the Playstation.
It’s just not fair. It’s not my choice to be here and I dearly wish I could do more, but I can’t and that doesn’t really help anyway. I can be there to support over the phone, and email and all that, but it’s just not the same as being there to help…At least I am there to go home at weekends to help and take some of the burden, which is something that people OOA can’t do – and that just makes the sense of guilt I’ve felt in the past even worse.
And then there is the issue of the fact that we can go away to dangerous places. Doing dangerous things. No matter how much re-assurance one can send home, the worry is always there…the fact that the partner at home doesn’t know what the other is doing right now. It must be truly horrible. You see that bit is fairly easy for us, but I can’t imagine how it was for, say, my ex-wife the night the First Gulf War started in 1991 when I was out in Saudi for the first time. How wives, partners and parents of troops who are out in Afghan right now cope – I don’t know, but my hat goes off to you all if you are in that situation.
So how do we, in the Forces cope with being away? I think we do it fairly easy. We have our support network to get us through the det – the other people on the det with us – and we have work to keep us busy and tire us out so we get to sleep fairly easy.
But I think the unsung heroes of every serviceman are his/her family. They are the ones who really have to cope with the deployment. They have to cope with keeping things going and struggling on. They are the ones who really need the support – to my mind anyway. And they are the ones who need the thanks from every serviceman – AND from the country at large too.
So if you are reading this, and you know someone who has a loved one away…and particularly if they are alone with kids somewhere…nip round and ask them if you can do the ironing for them. Or if they fancy a DVD with a bottle of wine. Or a days babysitting so they can get some adult time shopping in…because not only will you be helping the partner left at home, you’ll also be helping the partner that is off on the deployment.