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Anna G. Larson, Published November 09 2013

The heroes at home: Military families face challenges while supporting deployed loved ones

If you go

What: North Dakota National Guard 188th Army Band Brass Quintet performance in honor of Veterans Day

When: 2 p.m. today

Where: Fargo Public Library, 102 3rd St. N.

Info: The event is free and open to the public. The band will perform a mix of military music, marches and patriotic selections.

Fargo - Wyatt Clarke wasn’t going to cry.

But when the 4-year-old saw his dad step into the airport, Wyatt broke into tears and ran toward him. Big sister Aubrey Clarke and mom Rachel Clarke cried, too.

It was the first time in seven months the family had seen Master Sgt. Josh Clarke.

“It was like, ‘OK, you really are here, I can hug you, touch you, feel you, talk to you,” Rachel says.

Josh, 37, was deployed for seven months to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan with the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Security Forces Squadron. It was his longest deployment and first since he became a father.

Less than 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform today. Of those who do, 55 percent of the force is married, and 40 percent have two children, according to the White House.

The challenges of a military family are unique, especially before, during and after the deployment of a loved one.

The threat of harm and absence of the family member can create stress on all aspects of life, says Kristi Clifton, the director of psychological health for the North Dakota Air National Guard.

The beginning of Josh’s deployment was the most difficult, says 9-year-old Aubrey Clarke.

“At the beginning, we were really, really worried, or maybe we were just a little overwhelmed. Then halfway through, we were just fine,” she says.

Josh’s dog tags, among other items, comforted Aubrey and Wyatt in their dad’s absence.

“We tried to make sure that they had a couple of small things to hold on to, to touch, look at and feel when they needed to,” Rachel says.

ALMOST HOME

Near the end of Josh’s deployment, the Clarkes experienced their most upsetting moment. Josh was set to come home, and at the last minute, he found out he wouldn’t be on the plane to Fargo.

“It was one of the most emotional pieces for the kids to wrap their heads around. It’s an experience in real life, which is ultimately unpredictable and unfortunately sometimes disappointing,” Rachel says.

Since she’d talked with Josh only hours earlier, Rachel felt confident telling the children their dad was on his way home. In those instances, Clifton says the parents should explain that it’ll take a while longer for mom or dad to come home.

“Then work and deal with their feelings about that,” she says.

Parents can also struggle with what to tell their children while a parent is deployed. Most of the time, parents safeguard their children, Clifton says.

It can be helpful to use a child’s developmental age as a guideline to determine what and how much to tell a child, she says. For instance, teenagers can easily go online to see the latest news reports, while a toddler can’t.

Josh waits for fourth-grader Aubrey to leave the room before he talks about the danger level in Afghanistan. In Bagram, there was a constant threat of ground attacks, rocket attacks or suicide bombers.

“There are definitely places much, much worse than where I was, but it definitely has its dangers every single day,” he says.

During Josh’s deployment, Rachel noticed Wyatt crying frequently, and learned that he didn’t know how to get his emotions out.

She showed him how to kick his feet on his bed like he was swimming, and they’d also scream into pillows. Wyatt discovered an affinity for stomping on bubble wrap, too.

“Wyatt giggled and giggled. It worked in his line of processing,” Rachel says.

Rachel also knew when she needed to de-stress to call a family member or friend to help with the children.

Identifying and establishing a support network before a family member is deployed is essential, Clifton says.

“A lot of moms especially feel guilty for doing that,” she says. “You shouldn’t feel guilty. Most of the time, your kids love having the family member or friend over, and that gives you that break so you can be better equipped to care for them.”

The couple worked to keep their relationship solid during the deployment, in addition to keeping the children connected to their dad.

The Clarkes would carve out time to talk on the phone each week “just to hear each other’s voice.” They say the foundation of their 16-year relationship helped them get through the difficult time, and they discussed their communication strategy before the deployment.

“It was my job to make sure he knew that everything was OK so he could do his job there,” Rachel says.

Sgt. Troy DeBerg, 36, returned in August from a 10-month deployment to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He’s been deployed twice before, both times to Iraq. Communication with his wife of nine years, Toni DeBerg, was a top priority each time he was away.

“I saw a lot of other relationships where the communication was very low, and they got a divorce,” he says.

Clifton compares the regular communication during a deployment to dating.

“You have to have that time to each other and be able to talk to each other and share how much you miss each other and love each other and express that,” she says. “It’s kind of like going on dates.”

Troy says he didn’t have to worry about his 14-year-old son, Richard Sheppard, because he knew Toni was taking care of everything. Toni is also in the military and has been deployed to Iraq.

“I’ve always said that the hardest part, the person that it’s hardest on, is the one who has to stay home,” Troy says. “I knew what she was taking care of, and it was a lot.”

BACK TO CIVILIAN LIFE

The Clarkes are still figuring out how to get their “canoe” balanced now that Josh is home. A canoe on a river was used as an analogy for military families during a pre-deployment training session with the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program.

The program connects families with resources and support before, during and after deployment.

“It’s my job as the spouse to keep tabs and see if there are any flags that are popping up,” Rachel says.

The time it takes for a service member to reintegrate back into their civilian life is difficult to determine, Clifton says, but communication is key during the process.

A majority of the time, service members settle back into their lives, but some signs that a person needs help include:

E isolation

E increased anxiety

E increased depression

E suicidal or homicidal thoughts

So far, Josh says his life feels “back to normal.” Rachel chimes in to say she’s proud of how they handled his deployment.

“We should never underestimate what we are capable of, both for the airmen on the front line and the families,” Rachel says.

Aubrey is happy to talk about her dad’s deployment and says it helped her and Wyatt gain a deeper appreciation for their dad’s career.

“Before, we weren’t really attached, but we were proud of our dad because he’s in the military,” she says. “Now that he’s been gone, it’s different.”

Rachel is grateful for the experience, difficult as it was, because it bolstered the family’s understanding of what it means to be a patriot.

“We talked, the kids and I, about how Daddy’s always been our hero, but now he really is a hero,” she says.

“We drive by the VA hospital to and from child care and work ever day, and that’s the ‘Hero Hospital’ to my kids, that’s what they call it. I just love that it gives you some core values that maybe others don’t incorporate into their daily lives as significantly or take for granted.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525

Military family resources

- The VA Medical Center

2102 Elm St., Fargo

(800) 410-9723

www.fargo.va.gov

Services: Physical and mental health services for U.S. veterans.

- Veterans Crisis Line

(800) 273-8255 or send a text message to 838255

www.veteranscrisisline.net

Services: 24-hour access to confidential support for veterans and concerned friends and family members

- Fargo Vet Center

3310 S. Fiechtner Drive, Fargo

(701) 237-0942

www.vetcenter.va.gov

Services: Readjustment counseling (includes individual and family counseling, bereavement counseling, military sexual trauma counseling) for veterans and their families

- The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program

www.yellowribbon.mil

To check events in the Fargo-Moorhead area, visit www.yellowribbonevents.org.

Services: Events for families and service members before, during and after deployment.