One of the most challenging hardships for the men and women in the armed forces is being separated from family for extended periods of time.
Beyond the obvious struggle to keep the family strong during long absences, active duty will take place with complete disregard for family struggles and life benchmarks; you can be deployed even if your five year old is starting school, your wife is pregnant, your husband is fighting to establish a small business, or your sister has just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
While this reality is often distressing and heart-wrenching, modern technology provides new options to stay involved with your family. Video calling is now one of the most effective ways of staying in touch, and making these calls isn’t a task that should be overlooked. In fact, it is absolutely vital that you find a way to stay connected.
The single most common conclusion of studies into happiness show that the number and strength of a person’s social connections is the most significant predictor of how happy a person will be. While the notion of being the “smiling soldier” may not be important to you, happiness has also been shown to improve personal resilience and effectiveness.
Outside of maintaining social connections, having healthy contact with people back home can help you maintain a sense of personal identity by remaining involved in spiritual and cultural activities. This improved sense of identity can go as far as protecting against the risk of PTSD.
The stress of separation is not to be overlooked. It can play a significant role in your personal happiness and sense of well-being while deployed. The Jensen and Shaw study in 1996 found that simply writing a letter home was enough to give those deployed a greater sense of control, which helped to diminish the stress of separation.
While studies using video calls have yet to be conducted, the common sense conclusion is that the more in- depth the connection, the more effective it is in combating the stress of separation.
For Your Family
Issues regarding finances, child care, mental challenges, careers shifts, and well beyond will continue even while you’re deployed. While you may not be able to shoulder the burden for your loved ones, your presence—even if only on a computer screen—can help diminish the stress of separation and provide psychological benefits for your family.
One of the greatest stresses for military families is called the “stress of ambiguity.” The roles of each family member have to remain flexible because active deployment can create a sudden absence.
This stress of ambiguity intensifies when your family doesn’t have information on your current role and unit. A 1996 study by Norwood confirmed that families who didn’t have regular updates on the unit and safety of the deployed family member were more likely to have negative effects due to the stress of ambiguity.
Staying coordinated during deployment can also make reintegration with the family more healthy and effective upon return. Being able to update your family on your friendships and struggles, and being able to receive updates on changes back home, minimizes the “culture shock” created by a long absence.
According to The Psychology of Serving in Peace and Combat: the Military Family, “In peacetime and war, families are crucial to the well-being and effectiveness of military personnel.” The 1996 Norwood study likewise confirmed that family connections improve the readiness, performance, and mission capabilities of soldiers.
It’s natural to worry about your family, and this worry is magnified when you can’t stay in touch. This can do more than distract you from the mission; it is not uncommon for service members to be rendered completely ineffective by a sense of helplessness that comes when it’s impossible to be there for struggling family members or to take part in a spouse or child’s major life landmarks.
Staying in touch through video calls or other modern technology does more than make you and your family happier. It makes you stronger. It makes you a better soldier.
Strategies for Staying Connected
While each area of deployment is different, there are a few tips that apply universally:
1) Equip your family with the appropriate hardware and software
This means an up-to-date computer; a decently fast and stable internet connection; a webcam and microphone; and software such as Skype or Google Voice (with video enabled). Alternatively, several high-tech applications for smartphones are being perfected, such as Facetime for the iPhone.
2) Stay consistent
If you are in daily contact and then drop out of touch for several days, you are doing your family a disservice. It’s far better to have a regular routine with less frequent contact than to have a high-frequency but inconsistent call schedule.
3) Get a “family buddy”
There may be times when you simply can’t be in regular contact with your family. For occasions like this, find a “buddy” in a different unit who can contact your family when you’re away and give them an update on your general status. In exchange, you can do the same for their family.
4) Be there for the big moments
If you aren’t there to wish your child good luck on their first day of school, see your newborn baby, or talk to your dying grandfather, you will regret it. Luckily, with video calling, that regret can be avoided even if you’re deployed.
These simple tips can help you maintain healthy contact with the people who matter back home. Remember: This isn’t just for you. It also serves your family, the mission, and your future.
About the author: Steven Chalmers has written professionally for over two decades. When he’s not writing you can find him covering video conference solutions and training for his upcoming triathlon.