Return to the home front

The 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division is beginning to prepare for a homecoming.

Capt. Stephen Miller of 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment is among those in the rear detachment getting ready for the return of the 3,500 soldiers who have spent the last 15 months in Iraq. The advance party is scheduled to arrive in mid-April with the remainder of the brigade flying in during early May.

“For what the soldiers have sacrificed deploying, putting their lives in danger, doing what they signed up to do . . . the Army owes it to every soldier that they get as smooth a transition back as possible,” says Miller.

It's not as simple as just delivering a welcoming speech at the airfield and sending them home with loved ones.

Spc. Randi Wilson of the 92nd Military Police Battalion returned to Fort Benning about a month ago after spending 15 months in Baghdad. She understands what the soldiers will face.

“There are a lot of things to adjust to,” she says. “Traffic being around, more people, loud noises. You have to remind yourself, 'I am somewhere safe, not in a danger zone.’ ” She said she was fortunate that her husband, who is also in the Army and has been deployed, understands what she is going through.

“The toughest thing was readjusting to family life,” says Sgt. Stephen Thomas, also with the 92nd MPs. He is married with a 3-year-old daughter. He explains that both partners have become more independent. “You have to adjust and not do as much on your own anymore. . . . You have another person to count on.”

It's particularly hard with children. Thomas says his daughter hardly recognized him and was very shy at first.

Those are among the issues that are dealt with during the reintegration period. Each soldier is required to participate in safety and training briefings, screenings for mental and physical health and tips and tricks on how to adjust to home life.

“It was identified long ago that is a necessary part of the Army's responsibility,” Miller explains.

In addition to working with the soldiers, every battalion coordinates training sessions for families. Agencies counselors and chaplains put together information for those who have been carrying on at home. Miller, who has himself been deployed twice, explains the soldiers are different people when they return.

“They are still husband or wife, but experiences have changed the way they react to things and that doesn't go away when they step foot in the U.S.,” he says. “It takes weeks or months.”

Because both partners have gotten so independent, the relationship needs work. “They (the spouse at home) have a certain way of doing things,” the captain says, “The soldier is messing up the routine because the spouse has figured a way to do business and the soldier is in the way.”

Wilson agrees with the assessment and says the couples really need to communicate. “You feel you are on a back burner. They are doing everything.”

Single soldiers

The reintegration plan will start as soon as the soldiers hit the tarmac at Lawson Army Airfield. After initial briefings, they will be released to their families for 24 hours. Single soldiers, who account for about half of the brigade, will be taken care of as well.

In past redeployments, those unattached soldiers were dropped off at the barracks and some had to bed down in their sleeping bags. That has changed. Evelyn Livermore, Family Readiness Support Assistant for the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, says that thanks to corporate donations, each soldier will have linens and personal items.

“BOSS (Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers) has 120 volunteers who will decorate the barracks and make beds, and family readiness will put out care packages,” she reports.

After the initial decompression period, the soldiers will spend 10 half-days in briefings, classes and screenings. Wilson says financial classes are very helpful because the soldier has to take into account there is no more combat pay and other monetary issues. Thomas adds that the counseling and screening are confidential, and soldiers are provided a list of people they can talk to at anytime. He recommends the returning soldiers “take it easy at first, soak up everything and if you need help don't hesitate to ask.”

Some sessions are for the whole family and Livermore encourages spouses to attend. “It's hard for us as spouses to understand what the soldier has gone through,” she explains.

Block leave

After the 10-day reintegration, soldiers get 30 days of leave. That, too, can be challenging. The spouses who have been at home just want to get a break, Miller says their response is often: “Welcome home. Here are the kids. I need a break.”

Wilson says the soldiers really need the time off.

“When on deployment you are constantly around the same people all the time," she says.

"It gets aggravating. Block leave is very important.”

The surrounding community will likely feel the impact of the soldiers' time off as well. Miller points out there will be an influx of people in restaurants and night clubs. Livermore recommends the public be tolerant.

“They have been in a war zone," Livermore says. "They may hear a car backfire and become upset. . . . Have patience with them.”

"Unless you have been there, you really don't understand the complexity and the hardship they have been through," Miller says. “A big parade and show is always nice, but nothing ever beats a person coming up to a soldier and saying 'thanks.’"