Army's new mission: Make homecoming easier for soldiers and families

It's a scene that's been repeated countless times throughout history: Victorious warriors arriving home from far-off battlefields are rushed by loved ones in a euphoric reunion. There are embraces, kisses, raucous cheers, and tears of raw relief.

But the joy of the reunion can be fleeting. "Things may not be the same at home as they were when the soldier left, and combat is a life-altering experience," notes Dolores Johnson of the Army Community and Family Support Center in Alexandria, Va.

To help soldiers and their families navigate their way through the reunion phase back to "normal" daily life, the US Army has developed a program called Operation READY.

"We developed the eight-part Op READY materials as a result of lessons learned from the 1991 Persian Gulf War," says Ms. Johnson. "The materials are a series of training modules, videotapes, handbooks, and reference materials that were updated in 2002."

The one-hour Homecoming and Reunion module includes a video and segments about communication, intimacy, change, and expectations.

Holly Gifford, the deployment readiness program manager, puts communication at the top of the list because many soldiers have been away from home for as long as a year and communication has not been easy.

But Ms. Gifford also acknowledges that every family is going to react differently and that the program aims to give them some ideas to make the transition easier. "Children's issues are primary," she says.

According to the Op READY material, which is accessible at www.goacs.org, children can have a range of reactions when a soldier-parent comes home: being happy and excited, withdrawing, expressing anger or jealousy over one parent's interaction with the other, becoming anxious and insecure about what to expect, or talking nonstop to update Dad or Mom.

The program suggests that in anticipation of the reunion, the parent at home can have the family bake cookies, prepare a special meal, and make "welcome home" signs. Among other things, it advises the returning soldier to be prepared to praise the children for what they've accomplished in the long months apart; review pictures, schoolwork, and scrapbooks; and to restart the relationship with a clean slate.

Gifford says the ideal time for families to go through the program is four to six weeks before the soldier returns from the war zone.

Chaplains in the field offer the workshops to the men and women in their units.

"Family members and parents of soldiers who've been deployed should feel good that the Army puts such importance on providing support to those returning," says Johnson. "We have learned how to make these reunions successful, and we want to use those lessons ... to ensure [there] are no exceptions."

Families of those serving in the military can also find information at www.army.mil, by clicking on "Army Families" in the menu on the right. The site for the National Guard is www.guardfamily.org and for the US Army Reserve, www.army.mil/usar/.

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