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Understanding the Emotional Cycle of Deployment

There are numerous challenges that military couples and families face however one of the most trying experiences includes long periods of separation associated with deployments. Deployments can range anywhere from 1 month up until 2 years and can often be experienced as a significant disruption and trauma to service members and their significant others.  Over the years of wartime and humanitarian efforts that are typical missions of military deployments, common emotional experiences have been identified that have allowed us to better understand the stages that service members and their families go through.  Knowing and understanding the five distinct stages of deployment can help everyone involved learn about what they can expect and can promote normalization of emotional experiences.  The ability to negotiate and navigate these stages is crucial in order to prevent crises as well as to minimize the need for command/unit involvement and mental health services.

Stage 1: Pre-deployment
The first stage of the emotional cycle of deployment begins when a military unit first learns about the plan to deploy and lasts up until the unit actually deploys.  This stage can last as little as a few days up to months depending on the mission.  During this stage, service members and their families begin to anticipate the loss of being away from one another and can be experienced through denial that the service member is leaving as well as an increase in conflict associated with tension, fear, clinginess, and distance.  Once the deployment is near, service members and family members may begin to detach and withdrawal from one another, which may manifest through aggression, bitterness, fear, and worry. 

Stage 2: Deployment
The second stage in the emotional cycle of deployment begins once the service member leaves their family for deployment and can last up until the first month of being separated. This stage is described as disorganization and is characterized as confusion that is associated with expectations which can be exhibited through mixed feelings (fear, pride, anxiety, anger, relief, despair).  This stage also involves challenges related to maintaining family roles, responsibilities, and routines for the family members left at home due to the need to compensate for the deployed service member’s physical absence 

Stage 3: Sustainment
The third stage in the emotional cycle of deployment begins around the second month into deployment and typically lasts until a month or two prior to the service member’s return home. This stage is characterized as stabilization as a result of the family members’ reorganization of roles and routines that are effective in meeting the family’s needs.  This stage can also involve increased communication between the deployed service member and the family, which can promote reassurance that everyone is okay.

Stage 4: Re-deployment
The fourth stage in the emotional cycle of deployment begins about a month or two prior to the deployed service member’s return home. This stage involves everyone’s anticipation and preparation for the service member’s return and can be experienced through excitement, apprehension, and nervousness about what things will be like once the family is reunited. Oftentimes individuals focus on questions about the changes everybody has experienced during their time apart as well as question how one another will feel about each other. 

Stage 5: Post-deployment
The final stage in the emotional cycle of deployment begins once the service member has returned home and can last 3 to 6 months after deployment. This stage is all about reunification of the service member and their family members and involves renegotiating the roles, responsibilities, and routines within the home.  This process can be associated with conflict however it is the most significant stage since it can greatly influence the long-term wellbeing of the service members’ relationships with their families. 

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT