Angels Among Us: Practical Ways to Help Military Families
- Monday, March 31, 2003
"Got your backpacks?" I shouted above the clamor of five children in the car as they prepared to go to school.
Yes! and Um...
"Um? Did I hear an 'um'?" As "Drill Sergeant Mom," I glared at my seventh-grade boy and said calmly, "Go get it!"
He scrambled out of the car, while the others fought over who got to talk to Dad first when he called later that night from his deployment to Red Flag. And I quietly wondered how "roughing it" in Las Vegas constituted "serving your country." But as my homework cadet reported in from parole, it was time to continue the roll call.
Yes! and Um...
"Um? Did I hear an 'um'?" Once again the drill sergeant cast her steely eyes on the guilty party. This time I zeroed in on my youngest, our first-grade son (aka "Turbo Dude" for his ability to hustle, which of course comes in handy when he's so forgetful!).
"You forgot your shoes again?!" I exclaimed as he squirmed under my laser-beam stare. "And if I hadn't asked you about it, you'd end up at the drop-off zone at school like you did last week--Shoeless Joe Jackson! Now go get them, quickly!"
The little guy scrambled out of the car, grabbed his shoes off the shoe rack in the garage, and "turboed" back into the vehicle at record speed. I fondly observed my "baby" and mentally counted the days until his dad would return home to play checkers with the chubby-cheeked cherub. This was day one, and there would be 29 more days of this particular absence.
With the roll call complete, this temporarily single mom began to back the huge white Suburban out of the garage, when suddenly she heard a sickening scrape of metal on metal, followed by her children's screams:
"Oh, no! No!"
You hit the garage door! It fell off the tracks and landed on the back of the car!
"Oh, no! No!"
I lost it along with the kids. "Who left the garage door partially open?" I asked incredulously. The automatic door lifts it all the way up, and someone had to have purposefully stopped it before it was raised!
Suddenly the whole car became oddly quiet, and then one little voice broke the silence. It was the voice of Sweet Pea, our eight-year-old nearly perfect child.
"Um ... Mama? Papa said that when the weather is hot like this, we need to leave the garage door partly open. Since Papa is gone, I'm doing his job, and I left it partly open." A wave of tears filled his huge hazel eyes and spilled down his cheeks. "Did I do something wrong?"
Letting out a huge sigh and mustering a semblance of control and the kindest reply I could manage, I answered, "Well, Sweet Pea, I know you're being a big helper. But your dad meant the garage should be partially opened from the bottom when we're at home, not partially opened from the top when we're leaving."
Only 29 days to go!
As a veteran wife and mom, I've seen my share of "accidents" at home while Dad was away. Any military spouse will tell you that it seems as soon as the troops deploy, the children get sick, the washer breaks down, or a distracted mom absentmindedly plows through a partially opened garage door. We've purchased two garage doors in the past year. Overhead Custom Doors now carries our door in stock, ready for the next deployment!
But how do you describe what a deployment is to those who don't know? MCpl Ed Thompson is a husband, father of three, and a serving member of the Canadian forces. Here's his definition:
Most often we think of deployments as a time when a member departs for an extended period to some far-off exotic land. In fact, a deployment includes any time a member is separated from their family, such as a two-week assignment in sunny Wainwright or a yearlong assignment to the Middle East. So when you think of deployment, don't just think of our men and women serving overseas, but also think of those who are away from their families on course, training exercise, and assignments.
I have the confidence that the Kay family will survive these continued separations, even though it doesn't feel like it at times. We have in the past, and we will in the future. One of the ways we manage is through the help of "angels with skin on." These people put their faith into action and come to the rescue when daily routines become unbearable and the mundane issues of life--like mowing lawns and cooking dinner--threaten to be my downfall. They are the angels that walk among us, and their help is simply heavenly.
We all have our limits. Doing the single-mom thing while worrying about my spouse's safety will at times create so much tension that the thought of plowing through the week without help is almost too much to bear. It is precisely at these moments that God provides a strong back to take care of a few of Dad's chores, or we receive a hot meal when I'm too exhausted to cook.
In times of national concern, people ask themselves (or the military family) how they can reach out in practical ways to help the heroes at home. Americans really do care about each other, as is most evidenced during times of national tragedy. Often people--even extended family members--don't know how to help; that's what this section is for. It will help you help others to help you.
The other problem military families have is that sometimes well-meaning people think what they're doing is helping when it really isn't. For example, the in-laws that want to come and welcome the ship back into port. That seems like a very natural thing to do, and to suggest otherwise could be deemed ungrateful.
However, a closer look at the nature of military separations and reentry issues indicates that it would probably be better if the in-laws gave the sailor a couple of weeks to readjust to his nuclear family before they come to visit. That's why a copy of Heroes at Home in the hands of your family and friends will help you and a lot of other military members.
Here are some suggestions that you may want to pass along to those who want to be angels with skin on from those who think the right kind of help is simply divine!
Initially there are quite a few phone calls, cards, and letters of support when military members deploy or when the TDY begins. This can be a great source of encouragement, but here are a few tips to make the most of your support:
Brevity. Keep the initial phone calls brief and to the point, such as: "I just wanted to let you know that we're here for you and want to support you in any way we can."
Sensitivity. Be mindful that sometimes people will want to talk and other times they won't, because they can feel bombarded by phone calls as well as the enormity of their circumstances.
Leave a Message. Due to the number of phone calls, some families may have an answering machine on at all times. If you get the machine, don't hang up; just leave a short message expressing your care and concern.
If you are related to a military family, your initial reaction might be to go and help them. Here are some items to keep in mind if you are considering a visit. These guidelines can also be photocopied and mailed to your extended family members so they will know how to best help you.
Ask First. Don't call your daughter or nephew and simply announce your intentions to come to their rescue. Ask permission to come and be prepared for a "no" or a "please, not right now" answer.
It's Not About You. If you get one of the two negative responses about a visit, remember that this is not all about you. Don't make life harder for these family members by insisting on your so-called "family rights" or "responsibility" to help.
Asset, Not Liability. If the military family feels that your visit would be a real asset during this time, carefully consider the living arrangements. If your family lives in military housing, it is more than likely very small. Consider staying at an inexpensive hotel, at billeting on base/post, or even renting an RV to stay in during your visit. Close quarters can make for added stress.
Permissive Help.If it is determined that you will go to visit your family, then decide to help without taking over. I've had many friends whose families show up and then let the mom do all the cooking for the additional family members! Ask permission to help; then once you get a green light, by all means clean, cook, do laundry, take the children to the zoo, mow the lawn, change the oil in the car, fix the broken door handles, run errands ... well, you get the idea.
Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming
During Desert Shield, our troops sat in the desert for six months for a three-day ground war. Once the media frenzy of the initial deployment wears off, people get on with their lives and tend to forget the families that remain alone for many weeks. Here are ways not to forget:
Mark Your Calendars. Make a weekly reminder note to send a card or make a call. A small note makes a big difference.
Humor Helps. Humor can be an incredibly healing balm and provide a much-needed release, so you might want to send a funny card, a poem, cartoon, book, photo, or family-oriented video.
Unconditional Love. Do not require a response from your friend. Your card may have meant a lot, but your friend may be so distracted by the stress of the deployment that they may forget to thank you (at least right away). The usual protocols do not always apply during sustained separations from family members.
When in Doubt, Send Chocolate (or Other Tokens of Support)Okay, this piece of advice comes from a chocoholic, but the logic is sound--give the heroes at home small gifts from time to time. These special treats can make all the difference during a difficult stretch. Small acts of kindness reap big rewards to those holding down the fort at home.
Money Is No Object. Thoughtful reminders that someone is thinking of you don't have to be expensive. Drop off a gift basket filled with your friend's favorite foods (did I mention chocolate?) or a video rental of a movie they've been wanting to see (be sure to let them know when it's due back).
Gifts of Time. I've been called the "Coupon Queen" many times, but why not make a coupon booklet as a gift? Include coupons for free baby-sitting, a meal, a favorite batch of cookies, a coffee date, running errands--the possibilities are only limited by your imagination!
Group Gifts. Groups of friends (such as a Sunday school class or work group) could join together and buy a long-distance phone card, a gift certificate for a favorite restaurant, or movie passes for a fun night out.
Saving Private Ryan
It can mean a lot to the family at home to know that others are keeping in touch with the military member. Here are some practical ways to reach out:
Prayer. There's an old saying "There are no atheists in foxholes." No matter what the military member's religious affiliation is, the overwhelming majority of people won't turn down prayer. Let them know you're praying for them regularly.
Prayer/Letter Chains. If you want to take the above tip a step further, organize a group of friends to pray each week. Have the weekly prayer partner write a note to the military member to let him/her know they're praying. But be sure it's all right with the service person before you organize this chain.
Letters. Your family can adopt a single service member. Send photos of your family, drawings from your kids, and letters of appreciation for the service they are rendering our nation.
Gifts. Check with the military member and see what restrictions there are on small gifts. One suggestion is a book called Taking the High Ground--Military Moments With God by Col. Jeff O'Leary (Cook, 2001). This book is bringing comfort and wisdom to thousands of veterans, military members, and their families. It gently gives them hope and points them onward and upward.
Angels With Skin On
It's one thing to give a family an open-ended statement: "If there's anything we can do to help, please let us know." Chances are they will never call for your help. Here are some ways to be proactive in your offer for help:
Refusals Permitted. While you offer help, be sensitive to the fact that they may refuse it. Don't take it personally; just make another offer to help at a later time.
Be Specific. Instead of a blanket proposal for help, offer a tangible form of assistance, such as "May my son and I come and mow your lawn on Friday or Saturday?" Or, "I'd like to bring you a meal one day next week. What day would be good for you to take a break from cooking?"
Group Projects. If your group wants to help, have specific projects in mind. For example, a youth group could clear away all the leaves in the yard. Remember, always have adult supervision and be responsible for those in your group. These projects can be a tremendous blessing to the families involved.
Excerpted from: Heroes at Home: Help and Hope for America's Military Families by Ellie Kay. Copyright (c) 2002, Ellie Kay ISBN 076422789. Published by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
Clixk here to read an interview with Ellie Kay.
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