While all of us are faced with the unknown consequences of war, an increasing number of students will also be faced with growing concerns about friends and loved ones who have been (or may soon be) deployed for military service. These students, like the young adults of previous wartime generations, express feelings commonly associated with the trauma of military deployment (e.g., fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, etc.), with particular apprehension about what they will experience if their friends go into actual combat.
These students are describing completely normal responses to an abnormally troubling situation. Nevertheless, they must face the issue of how best to cope with the deployment and possible combat involvement of their friends and relatives. From my perspective, perhaps the single most critical challenge for these students is to sustain a focus not on their fears (no member of NMU's campus community can alter the path of even one bomb or bullet if fighting ensues) but focus on what does remain under their control.
To you students, I suggest that it is important to take care of yourself and to attempt to go about "business as usual," (as much as you can) while allowing for more talk/processing time in your week. Some students may mistakenly conclude that, given the risks being faced by their friends in the military, their own personal needs and academic pursuits are insignificant. This is not true. If you allow yourself to decay intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you will soon be of no use to yourself or anyone else. In fact, you may actually become a source of concern for others, adding to their existing burden and making it more difficult for them to cope.
It is best to:
- Take it day by day. Stick to the academic, work, and social schedules that give structure to your daily life. There is comfort in familiar routines
- Try to eat well and get enough rest
- Exercise regularly; anything you enjoy that is active is good for your body and your mind at times of high stress/anxiety
- Avoid excesses in alcohol and other drugs
- Limit your exposure to the emotionally draining impact of television war coverage. The demands of the twenty-four-hour-a-day news cycle encourage the media to inflate even the most minor events into "breaking news." Is it really going to benefit you to watch the same bomb footage over and over again?
- Do, not stew. Worrying about that which you can do nothing about leads to more worry-a vicious spiral. Find something to do, even if that is as simple as writing out your thoughts and feelings in a journal, rather than just stewing with them
- Spend time with people that you care about and do things with them that you enjoy
- Seek perspective and comfort from spiritual leaders and others in your community
- If you are struggling, talk about your feelings with friends and family who can accept how you feel and what you think without question. If things become more overwhelming, contact the Counseling & Consultation Services and request an appointment to air out your concerns
While the previously listed suggestions are all important to coping effectively with deployment/ out and find meaningful ways to be helpful to others, especially your friends in the military. For example, just like freshman at NMU, service members are overjoyed to get a letter, card, or package from home. Consistent efforts to communicate with your friends who have been deployed can do wonders to raise their morale and strengthen them for the challenges that they face. In fact, some incredibly moving and courageous compositions have been written between soldiers and their friends and loved ones (if you are interested, do a Google search for the 1861 letter written by Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah during the American Civil War).
However, communicating with deployed military personnel can be complicated, especially during times of war, so a couple things you should consider are:
- The frequency is probably more important than the length of the communications
- The military services will not provide you with contact information for your friends. Their parents and/or spouses should have the required information
- While all service members will have email accounts, it is unlikely that electronic communications will be "instant." Due to variables such as mission activity and the availability of computers, a soldier's response may be delayed for a week or more. Technological advancements have led some to speculate that, similar to the old practice of waiting in long lines at a phone booth to call home, soldiers will now be standing in long lines waiting to use computers for e-mail
- Snail-mail letters and cards are still one of the least expensive and most satisfactory ways to stay in touch with military personnel. Their advantage is that they can be reread during lonely moments or at times when other forms of communication are not available. Military postal systems will be set up near units, and estimates are that delivery times will average about ten days. Letters composed on a computer can be saved and collected in a book to be presented upon your friend's return
- If you are sending a package, check out the United States Postal Service website (www.usps.com) for information about what can and cannot be shipped to various locations. Be creative with your packages. Send photos, silly toys, newly released CDs, and interesting home newspaper and NorthWind articles. Make sure any food items are not perishable. Because of the high cost of calling home, phone cards are an especially welcomed and valued gift to include in letters and packages. Be sure to research the rules and restrictions of phone cards before your purchase
- Your friends may not be able to share much information about their location or mission. At the same time, they may talk passionately about their unit and their desire to serve their country. This enthusiasm is essential to your friends' success and safety in combat, and it is important for you to recognize and honor this part of their experience
- Even if you have doubts about the wisdom of going to war, it is important to keep your communications positive, upbeat, and supportive. Humorous stories about family and/or shared friends can transcend global distances and help service members feel close and connected to the important people in their lives
- If you decide you would like to extend your good will efforts beyond your friend, you can inquire if there is anyone in his or her unit who is not getting mail and request contact information for that person. The National Military Family Association (www.nmfa.org) can provide additional information about more general efforts to support our service men and women
In closing, while it may seem premature at this point, you might begin to contemplate and prepare for your friend's return to the States. Friends and loved ones of military service members frequently have fantasies of what the reunion will be like, often harboring a strong desire to return to "the way we were." However, the passage time and the experience of being deployed, not to mention the potentially life-altering impact of armed combat, can result in dramatic changes both within and between people. It is important to be willing to spend the time necessary to slowly reacquaint with one another and to reestablish the relationship on both old and new terms.