By Henry Zhu
Perhaps more than other students at this school, junior Jacob Zieba looks forward to the time he can spend with his parents. This is not particularly surprising, however, as his father recently returned from a year-long tour of duty in the Middle East earlier this summer.
As soldiers continue to arrive home in the upcoming months, military families will have to adjust to the return of family members. For Jacob, adapting to his father’s homecoming presented multiple unexpected challenges.
“My dad was in Afghanistan from August of last year until he came back this July,” Jacob said of his father’s return. “When he came home, we were all relieved that he was able to get back safely.”
Readjusting to civilian life after the initial euphoria, however, proved to be a challenge for the Zieba family.
“It was kind of weird when he came back at first because he had been gone for such a long time,” Jacob said. “It took us a while to get used to him being around again.”
With President Barack Obama’s decision to end “the American combat mission in Iraq” and to withdraw “nearly 100,000 U.S. troops” from the country, experiences similar to that of Jacob’s family are likely to increase as soldiers return home from overseas.
According to Natasha Allen, a readjustment counselor at the Indianapolis Vet Center, the difficulties Jacob’s family faced when his father returned are common among families with members in the military.
“I can see how it can be weird for the kids for a parent that has been gone a long time to suddenly come back and discipline
them,” Allen said. “It’s to be expected that there are some role conflicts and disputes when the veteran first returns, and that’s what the Vet Center is for.”
A Hero’s Homecoming
After an extended absence, the return of a parent from war is a joyous occasion and a relief for family members. For Jacob’s father Jim Zieba, one of the greatest memories about coming home was seeing his family for the first time in over a year.
“I’ll never forget stepping off that plane and just seeing my whole family waiting there for me,” Mr. Zieba said of his return. “Once you experience something like that, it’s not something you’d ever forget.”
Mr. Zieba’s experiences are quite common in this day and age. A recent article by USA Today indicates that the current generation of soldiers has served in combat longer than any other previous generation.
According to research by the U.S. Army, nearly 47 percent of the nearly 300,000 active-duty enlisted soldiers have served multiple combat tours.
For Mr. Zieba, the constant switching between two different ways of life was difficult to become accustomed to.
“You’d come back and have to switch gears because your civilian and military lives are so different,” Mr. Zieba said. “We didn’t have too many disagreements though. I came back to fewer changes and conflicts than even I expected.”
Though the transition went well in general, Jacob said there were some difficulties at first concerning the adjustment from one to two parents and issues with discipline and each parent’s roles.
“When it comes to discipline, it’s like I get double-duty punishment,” Jacob said. “I got so used to getting yelled at by one parent, and then suddenly the other one’s back and yelling at me too.”
According to Jacob’s mother Sherry Zieba, there was a transitional period following her husband’s return. She said the family initially treated Mr. Zieba more like a guest and tried to slowly ease him back into daily activities.
Additionally, the family scheduled a vacation to the Pacific Northwest for some family bonding time, which Mrs. Zieba said helped bring the family closer together.
For freshman Allyson Messer, her dad’s return from his service in Iraq in 2008 also proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Rather than the smooth transition Allyson had expected, the family had to explain to her father all the changes that had occurred in his absence.
“We tried to take it one day at a time when he first got back from Iraq,” Allyson said. “We were so used to him not being there that we really had to make an effort to reintegrate him into the routine. I was so glad he was finally back, but a lot of things had changed. I didn’t know how to act or what to say around him at first.”
Allyson said she felt fortunate that her father only served a half-year tour of duty overseas during his 20 years in the military.
Publicly released U.S. Army records show that over 13,000 troops have spent three to four cumulative years in Iraq or Afghanistan and, by the end of 2010, the war in Afghanistan will have become the longest war in the nation’s history.
Though his tour of duty was relatively short, Allyson’s father Jay Messer said the changes in his family during his absence caught him off guard. From the obvious physical and emotional developments in his daughters to his own familiarity with military life, Mr. Messer said the adjustment was more of a challenge than he expected.
“For me, I was so used to the highly structured system of the military that I had to adjust to a family system that wasn’t as strictly structured, which took a while to do,” Mr. Messer said. “Outside and sometimes inside the family, everybody was so busy with their own lives that I got the mistaken impression that nobody cared or wanted to talk with me.”
Pete O’Hara, veteran of the Persian Gulf War and social studies teacher, said his experiences of returning from Iraq in 1990 were remarkably similar to those of Mr. Zieba and Mr. Messer. To go from the unyielding structure of military life to a more relaxed civilian existence, O’Hara said, is difficult no matter what time period it is. O’Hara said the soldier often still thinks in military mode for the first few weeks after he or she returns.
Despite all the difficulties, Jacob said the family appreciates Mr. Zieba’s return. While others may be used to the absence of a parent, Jacob said it is important to his family for everybody to be together.
“My dad’s absences have led me to really appreciate it when everybody’s together again,” Jacob said. “We try to take advantage of the time he’s home and do a lot more things as a family to make up for the things he misses.”
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
For Jacob’s family, all the changes that occurred in Mr. Zieba’s absence exacerbated the difficulties upon his return. The most prominent of these, according to Jacob, concerned the family’s structure.
“It’s a lot more hectic when Dad’s not around because we have a lot more chores and responsibilities,” Jacob said. “As oldest in the family, I had to drive my younger siblings around and take care of them when my mom was busy with the daily stuff around the house.”
Mrs. Zieba said the sheer quantity of tasks during Mrs. Zieba’s absence often meant she needed help from other. It was hardest during Mr. Zieba’s earlier absences, according to Mrs. Zieba, because she had to balance being a single mother with her work. This often meant that Mrs. Zieba needed help from relatives in watching the children, but she said the early experiences helped prepare her for Mr. Zieba’s longer absences.
For Allyson, she said the absence of a parent took an emotional toll on her. In addition to the increased responsibilities, she said she found it difficult to understand why her father had left and was frustrated by his absence.
Allen said the more personal and emotional challenges of having a parent away, while different for each child, are hardly unexpected.
“When a parent’s deployed, the child may act out because he or she doesn’t understand why their mom or dad is away,” Allen said. “It can sometimes be very difficult to explain the scenario to a child and help them understand.”
According to a 2009 Seattle Times article, research has shown that the children of soldiers can also suffer from the effects of war.
The number of so-called “military children” seeking outpatient mental health care doubled from 1 million to 2 million in the first five years of the war. In addition there was a 50 percent increase in the number seeking inpatient help as well as a 20 percent increase in hospitalizations for mental health reasons.
Alarming as these numbers are, the increasing ease of intercontinental communication has helped many, including the Zieba family, to stay in touch with faraway family members.
“We talked to my dad more when he was in Afghanistan than when he was in Bosnia in 2004 because of the new technology,” Jacob said. “When he was (in Bosnia), we only called him every month or so, and this time we were able to Skype with him almost every weekend.”
The Times They Are a-Changin’
New technologies are not the only changes that have taken place in the years that Mr. Zieba and Mr. Messer have been serving the United States. According to the two families, many of these changes have been positive.
For Mr. Zieba, the most notable changes have revolved around the support system for veterans returning from war. He said the military has been playing a more active role in assisting the soldiers and their families, which have largely been because of changes in society. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Zieba said, raised awareness among the public of the sacrifices veterans make.
“(The military) has done more to help people deal with the whole gamut of things,” Mr. Zieba said. “A lot of it’s because people now know more about veterans’ issues due to the wars and there are higher expectations among the public to care for the veterans. Before, there really wasn’t much support for veterans or their families.”
O’Hara said many of these changes may have been because of the change in how wars are fought. O’Hara, who fought in the Persian Gulf War, said the more lengthy form of war has taken a psychological and physical toll on the soldiers and led to the development of stronger support programs throughout the nation.
Other than the improved support system, the biggest changes the Messers said they noticed were in the area of public opinion. Both Mr. and Mrs. Messer said much of the public is more respectful and appreciative of all the military does in comparison to the late 1980s when Mr. Messer began his service.
Tom Blandford, Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 100003 in Carmel and veteran of the Vietnam War, mentioned the differences in the reception of today’s soldiers and his own experiences returning from Vietnam.
“Today’s soldiers come back to a far more positive environment—they’re treated as heroes and actually welcomed back,” Blandford said. “Back when we returned from Vietnam, it wasn’t ‘hate the war, not the veterans’ but rather ‘hate the war, hate the veterans’. I even ended up not acknowledging that I was a veteran for many years.”
Consequences of Conflict
Whether in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq or Afghanistan, Blandford said wars leave a lasting impact on the veterans who fight in them and the families they leave behind.
“The experience of war leaves a mark on a person and his or her family that can last a long time if not forever,” Blandford said. “It’s really the soldiers and veterans that hate war the most because they personally know how horrible it can be.”
Despite all the hardships her family faced as a result of her dad’s service in the war, Allyson said she is still thankful that everything turned out as it did.
“My dad’s absence led me to mature a lot faster because I had been through so much emotionally,” Allyson said. “Even though it was hard, I’m grateful it turned out as well as it did and I wouldn’t change any part of that experience.”