Surviving Deployment
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Advice for Parents of Service Members
by Donna Portelli

As parents, one of our greatest worries is how to keep our children safe. Even when they’ve grown up, that worry never really disappears, especially when they face a danger so serious we can’t offer any protection.

When Julie LaBelle’s son, Alex, enlisted in the Marines and deployed to Iraq , she was surprised to find out how strong those worries were. She had been through deployments before. Her husband, Ed, had a long successful career in the Marines, including training troops in the Middle East. Julie considered herself a deployment veteran and thought she understood the unpredictable and frightening aspects of having a loved one serve. But with Alex it felt very different.

The news of Alex’s deployment was “the scariest thing I had ever heard,” Julie said. Since her son volunteered for combat, she and Ed knew he would be in imminent danger, but they decided that Alex would not see their increasing worries and fears. Rather, Julie gave her son words that would help him: she told him how much he meant to her and how she would pray for his safety and well-being.

She kept her worries to herself until the day her son was leaving. As she stood, watching Alex and hundreds of other young men and women preparing for deployment to Iraq, she began crying. Her son turned to her and explained that he would rather face the danger of war, armed with all of his extensive training, than have someone attack her at the grocery store or a shopping mall.

That declaration was a defining moment between parent and child. “He really was fulfilling his destiny. This was truly his time,” Julie said. “As parents, we hope to mold and grow our children into everything they can be as an adult, while blanketing them along the way with our safety nets. But the strength that young people like Alex develop in the armed services is something we can’t give them.”

To help manage her fears, Julie found positive activities that helped maintain her sanity. She sought out and connected with the mom of one of Alex’s best buddies in his outfit. As they shared the common bond of missing their sons, they supported each other during the most difficult days. Julie also lost herself in world of hobbies that included journaling, scrapbooking, and long walks.

“Journaling was my map through life. It allowed me to express all my feelings, anxieties, hopes, and memories during Alex’s deployment,” Julie said.

Whether it’s by journaling and engaging in other positive activities to relieve your anxieties, communicating with your loved one by e-mail, letters, CDs, and care packages, or developing your own support network, Julie says it’s important for parents to find ways to alleviate some of the worries and stress. “It also helps the person who’s deployed. They don’t want to see you stressed – it’s much better to show them you’re being productive,” Julie said.

Julie’s Gems of Wisdom for Parents:

  • Support your child’s decision to serve; it’s your role as a parent to let them make their own choices.
  • Don’t let them feel your worry and woes, but do tell them how much they mean to you and all of the loving things we should tell our children but often don’t.
  • Connect as much as possible but keep your messages positive. Fill them in on what’s going on but don’t tell them bad or negative news unless they really need to know.
  • At the end of a conversation, try to make sure they feel great so they can do what they have to do. Let them feel missed but not that they are missing out greatly.
  • Send letters, pictures, and care packages. Include things that are special or unique to them rather than just bombarding them with sweets and treats. Julie gave Alex a small square of his baby blanket, fondly named “Pinky,” in one of his first care packages. Alex kept Pinky in the pocket of his flak jacket, and often his buddies would ask to touch Pinky. With that little square of fabric, Julie was able to give Alex a piece of home.
  • Engage in activities that you enjoy. Surround yourself with hobbies and interests. Stay healthy and exercise frequently.
  • Journal or find a personal or private way to communicate your thoughts.
  • Develop your own support network. If you can, find someone who’s been there and can guide you. Or find someone with whom you can share a common bond.
  • Stay as informed as you can. Map their locations and what you know. Sometimes sharing that information with other helps, too. At her church and the post office, Julie helped create real maps of the world--complete with pictures of her son and other service members--showing where they were serving.
  • Keep track of milestones or special events so you can tell your service member about them.
  • Arm yourself with the knowledge that your child is fulfilling their destiny and following their goals. “This is the ultimate hope we all share for our children!” Julie says.

Donna Portelli is a mother of three who writes for

Great Books

Julie recommends journaling as one way for parents to channel their emotions and thoughts during deployment. Deployment Journal for Parents: Memories and milestones while my child is deployed by Rachel Robertson is a personal journal designed especially for parents of deployed service members. Includes journaling prompts, inspirational sayings, and a place to keep track of special moments and milestones. Find out more.

Journaling is also a great way to help younger kids sort out all of the feelings they have when someone they love deploys. Here's how to get started with kids of different ages: Kids and Journaling

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