What support is available to those separated by deployment and training? And how can those at home, help themselves? Jill Misson reports…
With the focus on readiness, many personnel are away training and for families the line between an operational tour and an exercise lasting several months can feel invisible.
AFF’s former Policy & Research Director, Michelle Alston, says: “Whilst being in dangerous situations can heighten the challenges, the realities of families being separated run wider – whether practical, such as resulting in solo parenting or caring; financial, as it may impact the spouse’s ability to work; or wellbeing, with potential isolation. It is therefore key that families have the support they need, as and when they choose to access it.”
Spouse Lois Taylor says: “You get into a routine with a long deployment but there’s no respite. It’s tiring because you’re managing everything solo. Shorter separations can be easier for the children to cope with, but you have to try to manage the disruption if they have daddy home for the weekend before he’s off again come Monday morning.”
Unit Welfare Officer for 3 SCOTS, Captain Richard Grisdale, recognises the impact on family cohesion. “Absences cause a lot of uncertainty and confusion, so welfare teams do what they can to support families emotionally and practically,” he says.
Activities and events are organised to maintain morale. Richard says: “In the past, we’ve received deployment funds for trips to amusement parks, safari parks and beaches. This money has proven invaluable in dampening the blow families face while loved ones are deployed. We are very mindful that not all units have this wonderful opportunity.”
Spouse Sarah Peñaluna is grateful to her garrison welfare team. She says: “They provide us with a comprehensive and emphatic level of understanding about the deployment and assure us we are not alone and that they are there for us. They provide contact information and encourage us to use it. They are always available and encourage us to go to events.”
Feeling of isolation
Partners who live off patch in their own homes can feel more isolated. Mariya says: “I sometimes think his unit doesn’t know I exist. If he is away and something happens at home, there’s no way for me to reach him directly and I wouldn’t know where to go.
“I know some welfare teams rely on the serving person to pass anything on, but things can get missed. It would be useful to have an information sheet with contact numbers or even advice on where to find the welfare office and an email newsletter would be nice with details of upcoming events.”
Room for improvement
Major Chris Graham is an army reservist who recently returned from six months in Kenya. He says: “The deployment went well, although I did have to push my unit to reach out to my partner. It’s important that reservists engage with their welfare team to make sure that their families are supported.”
Although Chris looked forward to daily video chats with his partner, the internet connection in Africa wasn’t always reliable.
However, they did enjoy writing to each other even though the post was slow. He says: “In a world full of electronic, instant communication, getting a hand-written letter is a real treat. Deployed soldiers should consider taking the time to write home.”
Read Chris’s full story: Time apart – a reservist’s view…
Children experience a range of emotions when they are separated from a parent. Using a separation pack from Little Troopers, which includes chuff charts, postcards and diaries, helped Lois during her husband’s last deployment. She says: “Being able to cross off each day and write down what we’d been up to really helped the girls navigate the timescales. They also got special dolls a few days before he left, and he recorded lots of bedtime stories.”
Liz MacKenzie is the MOD liaison at a primary school in Bristol. She says: “The child’s teacher and I put a plan in place to support the pupil for the upcoming change in their life and I liaise with the non-serving parent to let them know that I will be checking in on their child and that they can get in touch anytime with any concerns.”
Children can talk about how the absence is making them feel during one-to-one sessions when they play a game or do a creative activity like drawing or sculpting with clay.
Decorated care boxes filled with artwork, schoolwork and photos are sent to deployed parents.
In recent sessions, Molly who is eight, said: “Sometimes I feel a little sad because I don’t like it when he’s gone. I feel uncomfortable because I don’t like changes.”
Teddy, seven, said: “Life isn’t the same when he’s not at home. I can’t wait for him to come back so life can go back to how it should be.”
Veteran Jon Quinn’s wife is serving so he looks after their young son while she is away. Jon says that nursery staff have been very supportive: “They helped me to understand how he may be feeling and acting because of the separation and taught the whole class about where his mummy was and why he was sometimes sad when getting dropped off.”
Jon used indulgence flights to travel to Cyprus mid-way through a tour. He says: “This massively improved our family’s morale and I know mummy was so pleased to see her loved ones over Christmas.”
In his experience as a soldier and now a spouse, Jon has found that support from welfare teams varies as each unit manages communications with families in different ways instead of adopting a standardised approach. He says: “There is definitely room for improvement because it’s very unpredictable to know what you’re going to get with each move and more so for individuals who are not affiliated with the cap badge they are being posted into.”
Jolene Cox (main photo) and her husband are both serving. She says: “Our younger children have started to find it increasingly difficult. We try to video call and send pictures as much as we can but ultimately, they get sad.
“All we can do is give them an abundance of love and make up for lost time when we are all together again.”
Major Lisa Brown from the Service Couples Network says: “New policies have come out that acknowledge and support dual-serving couples from a career management and deployment perspective, but it’s sometimes easy for the army to forget that the assignment of one half of a dual-serving couple has a direct impact on the other half.”
Managing your own career can be a juggle when your soldier is often away from home. Sarah Peñaluna works as an advisor for The Forces Employment Charity, having been helped by its Families Programme.
She says: “Remember that you don’t have to complete this journey alone. Before, during and after the deployment period, there is a career champion available to you which can make the whole process so much easier and more enjoyable. It was a game changer when I first moved to the UK and was faced with my first deployment.”
Sarah recognises the support she has had from other spouses and partners. She says: “I find there to be exceptionally positive camaraderie. We are on the same page straight away, sharing the same journey and naturally want to support each other, as we often don’t have our families close by to lean on. Without them, I would find things incredibly hard and lonely.”
Lois agrees that having a support network on the patch really helped her: “They keep you going with coffee, entertain the kids, pick up shopping, do a night-time dash for Calpol and keep you sane. Ask for help because we’ve all been there and we are there to support each other through it.”