- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

Before leaving for a six-month deployment, John Lenhen, a Navy chief quartermaster, left nearly 40 videos of himself reading his childrens’ favorite stories.

“You have to set things up in advance,” says Mr. Lenhen, the Norfolk father of a 9-year-old and 6-year-old triplets. Mr. Lenhen, 33, has had four deployments in 11 years and recently was awarded the National Fatherhood Initiative’s (NFI) annual Military Fatherhood Award.

“If you don’t put the right things in motion, you will be coming back to complete and total strangers,” Mr. Lenhen says. “Unless you are proactive, it is hard to stay in touch with your family.”

Some 1.9 million members of the military have been deployed since 2001, according to U.S. Department of Defense statistics. More than 876,000 of those service members are parents, and 245,000 have been away twice.

While there are many resources, such as military family readiness offices that prepare service members for the paperwork and logistics of being away from home, there are a growing number of resources to help with the emotional side of being a military parent. NFI is helping military branches establish programs to be a better dad, says Tim Redd, NFI’s director of military programming.

“There are lots of programs there to support the families, but not necessarily the dads,” says Mr. Redd, a father of four who spent more than 20 years with the Texas National Guard, including a year-long deployment to Kosovo. “It is absolutely critical that fathers understand how important they are in the lives of their children.”

Armin Brott, author of several parenting books, including “The Expectant Father,” has a new book “The Military Father: A Hands-on Guide for Deployed Dads,” which tackles everything from how to write a will to how to reintegrate into family life when you return from assignment. Mr. Brott, a former Marine, says he was inspired to write “The Military Father” after hearing from many military fathers seeking advice.

“I found it really poignant that they wanted to be involved,” he says.

The stress of deployment actually begins before departure, Mr. Brott says.

“It is absolutely critical that Dad understands the emotional tidal wave that is going to hit everyone in the family,” he says. “For example, it is natural in the home stretch before deployment for him to spend more time with the people in the unit, training and working together as a team. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when his wife wants to spend as much time with him as she can before he ships out, so fights can be very common.

“For most military dads, the hardest part of all is figuring out how they’re going to be able to maintain relationships with their wife and children — or create one with a child who will be born while Dad is thousands of miles away. This is definitely one of those easier-said-than-done things, but with a little preparation and a lot of commitment, it can be done.”

The good news is that technology has made it somewhat possible to bridge the communication gap. Postal letters that took weeks to get home have been replaced by e-mails and other forms of electronic communication.

Maureen Ramos, a Navy wife from Jacksonville, Fla., says Skype — which enables video calls over the Web — really helped her eight children stay in touch with their father when he spent six months in Cuba last year. Mrs. Ramos was pregnant with their ninth child at the time.

“I think the deployment was harder on him than on us,” Mrs. Ramos says. “I had the comfort of the community; he was by himself. We had to plan for those calls, though. We would make lists of things to talk about. I encouraged the children to gather their thoughts before talking to dad.”

However, video communication has a downside, says Mr. Brott.

“I heard from a number of women, who said ‘He says he is fine, but I can see the look in his eyes and he is not, so I had to turn the video off,’” Mr. Brott says.

Mr. Brott also points out in his book that the stress on families with a deployed spouse does not abate simply because children are older. There are issues all down the line, from an infant who turns into a child in a year away to a teen who may be acting out.

Mr. Redd’s oldest child was 15 when Mr. Redd deployed and did not respond well to the changes in the family.

“The trouble started the day I got on the plane,” Mr. Redd says. “We’re still re-establishing our relationship. That is part of my passion for starting NFI’s program. I don’t want other dads to experience that. My son was a freshman in high school that year. It was his first high school baseball season — something he dreamed about forever — and his dad was going to miss it. I did not see any games, although they did send me pictures and video.”

Mr. Brott says even with the best intentions and communications technology, coming home is often the most difficult part of the deployment.

“One of the biggest challenges facing families is that returning dads often feel unneeded and useless,” he says. “As you might expect, that can lead to all sorts of adjustment problems on all sides. Dad has to get used to a whole new set of routines, and the family might have to get used to a guy who hates driving in traffic because he wants to hit the deck at any loud noise.”

Mr. Brott warns of the “honeymoon period” for the returning service member — and the letdown that is sure to follow. A 2007 study of Marine Corps reservists showed 36 percent reported relationship problems and 43 percent reported problems with anger and aggression.

“The bottom line is it is definitely great to be home, but you and your family need to prepare yourself for the many challenges ahead,” Mr. Brott writes, pointing out that routines change, friends change, roles change, even pets change.

“Unfortunately, there is no ‘While You Were Away: Important Things That Have Changed Handbook,’” Mr. Brott says.

Mr. Lenhen says journaling helped his family bridge the space between deployment and home.

“It is hard to adjust to coming back no matter what you do,” he says. “What really helped me is that each kid kept a journal and I kept my own journal, writing down my emotions and things that were funny. When I got back, I spent one-on-one time with each kid and we shared our journals. That really helped.”

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