As it is for any family, dinner with the Pates is a carefully choreographed dance. Everyone has a role. Elisabeth Pate and her son, Jonah, make the salad. Brian Pate and his daughter, Caroline, set the table. But there was a time when this culinary corps was missing a member. In 2009, Brian, a major with the marines, was deployed to Iraq. He spent 15 months away from his family. Caroline wasn't born yet. And Jonah was just a toddler.
"Every night we were watching the border of Syria looking for smugglers coming over," Brian says. "You're very focused on doing that job, and doing it safely, so you can get your guys back home. In the back, of your mind, you're always thinking about your family."
But Brian wasn't just thinking about his family. He talked about Jonah all the time.
"One thing I did a lot was show the picture of my son to the sheiks and mukhtars," he says. "It was helpful because his name is Jonah, which is a Biblical name and translates into the Arabic. By the end they were calling me "father of Jonah."
He says coming home to his wife and Jonah was one of the happiest moments of his life. But Brian, who set the schedule for an entire unit overseas, didn't know the routine back at home. Everything from breakfast to bedtime was new territory, and he struggled to find his footing.
"It really is mundane domestic kinds of things that you're kind of observing to see how they go and then figuring out what role to play I guess," he says.
He even had to tweak the way he talked. "You have to transition from the perspective of dealing with 20-year-old marines, to being able to speak to a 3-year-old," he says.
Adjusting to family life after service
In fact, researchers say reintegration can be an especially complicated time for service members and their loved ones. Anita Chandra, a researcher with the RAND Corporation, has studied the effects of deployment on military families.
"While the reintegration is a joyous period and everyone is happy to have that service member parent home, it can be a struggle to establish routines, especially if the routine has changed in the service members absence," she says.
For example, some service members have changed during their time overseas. "Kids and spouses talk a little bit about dealing with a service member who may have mood changes, and that can be difficult for the service member and spouse," she says.
Meanwhile, the children have changed too. "Sometimes parents have missed some developmental milestones, and that can be challenging to try and navigate," she says. "In addition, sometimes kids have taken on new roles in the family, household chores and responsibilities for younger kids, and that can be challenging to make sure everyone feels part of the family again."
Because of these challenges, the Department of Defense has developed programs to help service members reconnect with their families, and many nonprofits are also pitching in.
A few years ago, Dorinda Williams, a social worker with the children's advocacy group, Zero to Three, wrote a picture book to help the children of service members prepare for their return. Williams says the goal of her book, Home Again, is to encourage families to be flexible with their expectations.
"You've had a lot of months to think about this event," she says. "It becomes perfect in your head. That wonderful reunion where your child comes running into your arms. And sometimes that's exactly what happens. But sometimes the child runs away from you instead. It's really really important for that parent to understand that that child's response is perfectly normal given the circumstances, and it's not a reflection on their relationship, and it's not indicative of how they're going to reconnect."
Williams says it's best to keep an open mind, and keep communicating. "It's really important for the service member and the spouse to talk about this, to talk about their expectations, to talk about what they're nervous about."
So, the Pates do just that. They try to discuss everything, from discipline strategies for the children to the mechanics of their daily routine. Then, every night, as they sit down to dinner, they say how grateful they are, and celebrate their time together.
[Music: "Frozen" by Daniel Lanois from Belladonna]
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