The Army is trying to help families reunited after long absences, offering programs and workshops for soldiers. But the real work of reconnecting is left up to the individual families who want to make their relationships successful.
Courtesy Jane Stetson
The Owen children, from left: Weston, Randy and JoJo (Joanna) Owen, pictured with their mother, Jane Stetson.
FINDING NEW FAMILY ROLES: When Army Sgt. 1st Class Bart Owen left for his last deployment to Iraq, his oldest son, Weston, then 8, took it upon himself to shoulder some adult responsibilities.
He looked out for his younger brother, Randy, and his newborn sister, JoJo. He helped his mother, Jane Stetson, with shopping, cooking and other household chores. By the time Owen came home, Weston was 9 and had come to think of himself as the "man of the house."
It was a role he was reluctant to give up. "He was defiant, rebellious, not himself," Stetson says. "He would cry. He hated the world."
Rewarded for stepping up, Weston was now being told to step back — a confusing change. Stetson and Owen turned to a counselor for help in turning the situation around.
First, they set new rules. When Weston breaks them, he's sent to a corner. "He's made progress," Owen says, but adds with a laugh, "He still finds the corner often."
The story was different with Jo Jo, now 16 months old. She didn't know her father at all. Owen says when he first came home, "She was all nos. She just shook her head no. I could push her stroller, but I wasn't getting any closer."
Owen had expected his daughter to be shy. He has let her slowly adjust to his presence and tried not to demand her attention too quickly. JoJo still often sits in her mother's lap for comfort, but that's changing.
Both parents say things are settling down. But maintaining a normal family life won't be easy: Owen left for a three-month training class at Fort Knox, Ky., last week. — Kathy Lohr
Kathy Lohr, NPR
A FAMILY REUNION: Capt. Jeff Townsend and his wife, Hunter, with their 14-month-old daughter, Viola.
Townsend was in Iraq when his daughter was born. Since Viola is so young, he did not expect his wife to bring her to his homecoming ceremony at Ft. Stewart, Ga. But Hunter surprised him. Finding one another in the crowd of 400 soldiers — who were getting off the bus all at once — was emotional and comical for the couple. They tell their story here:
Kathy Lohr, NPR
Townsend holds his baby daughter, Viola.
At Fort Stewart, Ga., where the 3rd Infantry Division is based, families taking advantage of the Army's counseling services include Jane Stetson and her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Bart Owen, who recently returned from deployment in Iraq.
"I came back home and I didn't know what the rules were," Owen says. "My wife has rules — her own rules — and she doesn't write them down. They might change daily. I was breaking the rules and letting the kids break the rules because I didn't know that they were the rules."
With their 16-month-old daughter, Joanna (JoJo), in tow, Owen and Stetson attended a group meeting at Fort Stewart for parents and children dealing with such problems.
The strain of raising the children alone during Owen's long deployments had led Stetson to obtain a divorce. But when the couple was apart, she says, they talked almost every night on the phone. They remarried a year later. Now, they are compiling a list of rules for their three children that both parents understand.
Karla Hillen, a clinical social worker and consultant on soldier family life at Fort Stewart, says she tries to help her clients identify the undercurrent of strain in their relationship.
"Is it trust? Is it the mother-in-law? Is it the finances? What is it?" Hillen says she focuses on "bringing that specific issue out on the table and teaching them how to communicate."
About 75 percent of Hillen's practice is with military families. She says those who have healthy marriages before deployment usually come back to healthy marriages. The danger is that some expect problems to disappear while they are away. That doesn't happen.
Some soldiers are already getting ready to go back to Iraq, and that has caused frustration. According to Hillen, spouses know they are supposed to try to reconnect, but because they also know their soldier is leaving again sometime in the next year, they may find it challenging and instead, withdraw.
Deployment has caused others to face more serious problems, especially when couples are new to military life and forced to live apart soon after they are married.
Spc. Larry Long says his wife, Jackie, has what he calls "Iraquitis," even though he was the one who was deployed. They are in counseling to keep their marriage of nine months together.