Stay connected during deployments

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- As military members, we are sworn to defend the nation against all enemies. Over the last 20 years, this has increasingly meant deploying to a foreign land and executing the mission. Deployments are a stressful time for the military member and their family involving the completion of myriad checklists, computer based training and (eventually) saying goodbye to loved ones.

Throughout my Air Force career, I have seen many Airmen travel downrange. With their six-part folders in-hand and boarding the aircraft to take them overseas, many seem confident everything is set and prepared for what lies ahead. However, while not intentional, they seem to neglect one critical item: how to stay connected to their loved ones at home.

Just 10 years ago, members at deployed locations were limited to two phone calls for 15 minutes each per week. However, today's deployments typically have accessibility to Wi-Fi and high-speed internet with everyone carrying a laptop, tablet or phone. Video calls are the new standard. Technology has opened up the frequency and quality of interaction with their loved ones, but still can't influence the content of the conversation.

I am going to focus on some ideas for helping military members stay connected with their spouses and children. This isn't an all-inclusive list or checklist as each situation and person is different. Instead it is presented to spur thought and make for a smoother deployment (for everyone).

Have a plan
Yes, it's a well-used question in the military: "What's your plan?" However, in this instance, it isn't structured by regulations, operating instructions or even military leadership guidance. Instead, the plan involves the interaction of some very close family members who could be confused on what's happening, uncertain on how to react, very young or a combination. Some extra thought needs to go into "The Plan" beyond the standard "I'll call when I get there." The standard call plan quickly turns into the "I've got nothing new to talk about" after a couple weeks. This is the wall to break through for your deployment.

The initial step is talking prior to your deployment with your family about what lies ahead and how you will stay in touch. The plan needs to be fluid as every family and family member is different, each reacts in a different manner and situations change throughout the time away. What is everyone's expectation? What is everyone's preference? This serves as a good foundation for planning ahead.

What to do?
The end result is to spur conversation and make your family feel you are there with them. Kids especially need more than the verbal reassurance by phone. These are a sample of good ideas I've seen executed.

Pick a TV show or book for you and your spouse to experience together. Agree to read a chapter or watch an episode between phone calls.

For young children, buy two of the same books. Take one with you, and leave one at home. This becomes the book you (and only you) read with them at bedtime. The chapel also typically has a United Through Reading program that records your reading a book onto a DVD. The DVD and book are then mailed to your family.

Have someone record your kid's for you. Watch it and it opens up your ability to continue to encourage your kids from an ocean away.

Even with all the video technology around, there still is something exciting about getting something in the mail. A hand-written letter in the mail is a bit old fashioned, but still very effective. That extra step of taking an extra moment to put pen to paper instead of selecting the generic card speaks volumes.

A surprise package is fun for all and a book, stuffed bear or some other small gift is a nice way to remind someone you are thinking of them.

Plan a date night. Pick a time each week you and your spouse will "meet." You can simply chat or play games. Even a simple game of on-line Battleship can be a fun event. But, the point is it's just the two of you setting aside that time each week to be with each other.

End Result
A deployment will always be stressful. However, with proper planning, you and your family can have the same expectations going into a deployment and remain connected throughout.