Military spouse of the year: And the winner is…. a dad!

A stay-at-home father of two has just received one of the highest civilian honors we can give: the 2012 Military Spouse of the Year from Military Spouse magazine. Jeremy Hilton, whose wife is in the Air Force, is the first man to ever receive the award.

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Dads in the Military: Bonding before Birth

I’m in the military and I’m going to be sent overseas for at least a year. The problem is that my wife is pregnant and due to deliver right about the time I’m supposed to ship out. I can probably finagle things so that I’ll be here for the birth of our child, but the year abroad is unavoidable. What kinds of things can I do to try and bond with our infant early on, before I am deployed overseas? Equally important, are there things I can do to try and maintain a bond with such a young baby while I’m away?

What terrible timing. Try to spend every second you can with your baby as you possibly can before you have to ship out. You don’t need to plan any special activities with newborns-holding, changing, bottle-feeding (either formula or breast milk), reading to her, taking her out for walks, etc–the most mundane and basic stuff but that’s what relationships are based on.
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The Army? You Want to Join the Army?

Dear Mr. Dad: My 18-year old son wants to join the Army, but neither my wife nor I want him to enlist. How do we communicate that without sounding like we want to control his life? Is it wrong to tell him we think he’s making a big mistake?

A: First, my congratulations to your son: wanting to join the military shows courage, responsibility, and a desire to do good and protect others (although, as someone who enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, I’d have to question his choice of the Army). Second, understand that at 18, your son is a legal adult. If he’d have wanted to, he could have signed on the dotted line, packed his bags, and asked you for a ride to the airport. The fact that he raised the issue at all is huge. It means he’s really thinking things through and that he respects your opinion.

Before you say anything to your son one way or the other, consider these two things: 1) Why he wants to join in the first place, and 2) Why you’re against it.

People join the military for a variety of reasons, including the enlistment and reenlistment bonuses (which can be in the 10s of thousands), getting a job, getting an education, having a chance to travel the world, and the amazing benefits available to veterans. You can familiarize yourself with some of these benefits at military.com/benefits.

The best way to find out your son’s motivations is to ask. So sit down with him and talk about the issues. And by “talk,” I really mean “listen.” Don’t hog the conversation and don’t try to force your viewpoint on him. If you come across as judgmental, you’ll be giving him yet another reason to enlist: to get away from his controlling parents.

Since your son hasn’t made his final decision, I suggest that you, your wife, and your son go visit a local recruiter. They’re generally very open to including parents in the process. At the very least, this will show your son that you respect his decisions and that you’re concerned that he make the best choices. If he hasn’t already seen a recruiter, this meeting will give all of you a chance to find out what positions (called MOS—military occupation specialty) your son is qualified for. Not everyone has to be a grunt (an infantryman). Speaking with a recruiter can also help your son clarify his goals and give you some insight into what’s driving his desires.

Now, to your issues. As parents, we all want to protect our children from danger, and there aren’t many jobs in the world where your son could be more in harm’s way than the service, particularly these days. In addition, you may have some strong issues with the military. But your natural instinct to protect your son (or to express your political views) isn’t a good enough reason to try to change his mind.. Again, he’s an adult and harsh criticism could very well drive him even further away than boot camp.

If at all possible, find some support for yourself. Talk with family members or friends whose children have served. Try to get both sides of the story—some parents who were unhappy about the decision and some who supported their child’s choice.

But at the end of the day, the most important thing you can do is support your son. Sure, tell him you’re afraid for his safety—he is too. But also tell him how proud you are.

Coming Home. Okay, Now What?

Dear Mr. Dad: Now that our troops are coming home from Iraq, my husband is thinking about getting out of the Air Force. We’ve heard a lot about all the benefits that are supposedly available to veterans and their families, but how do we find out about them?

A: When I got out of the Marine Corps I started looking into this, but the process was so cumbersome and overwhelming that I gave up. Big mistake. By not thoroughly investigating, I missed out on a lot of benefits. Fortunately, things are much, much better today.

I recently interviewed representatives from a number of agencies within the Veteran’s Administration, which should be your first stop—specifically their eBenefits program (ebenefits.va.gov). This is where vets (and soon-to-be vets) can register for health benefits and investigate many others. If you start registering now, the system will tell you what programs you may be eligible for and the documentation you’ll need to access them. Here are just a few examples:

Your husband may receive hiring preferences for certain government and civil service jobs. He may also have an advantage when bidding on government contracts. If he has a service-connected disability, check out vetsuccess.gov, which provides counseling, education, vocational training, and a number of other services. “Disability’ now includes Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which don’t leave visible scars but can be just as damaging.

Today’s GI Bill (gibill.va.gov) is fantastic, paying full tuition for in-state schools and up to $17,500/year for private. If the vet can’t or doesn’t want to use them, these benefits can be transferred to another family member.

If you’re looking to buy a house or refinance your current loan, the VA guarantee allows for higher LTV (loan-to-value) ratios, meaning you may be able to get qualified with a smaller down payment. Funding fees can be a little steep, though, but there are other advantages.

National Cemetery Administration. We all know we need to talk about this at some point—we just don’t want to do it today. As uncomfortable as it might make you, visit cem.va.gov, read up on the benefits and eligibility, and then store the information away in the back of your mind. Hopefully you won’t need it for a long, long time. But knowing where to turn is better than not knowing.

Check into non-government organizations such as the VFW and American Legion. They can help vets negotiate the VA system and provide support in a variety of other ways. In addition, most states provide some kind of benefits for veterans. Check to see whether yours has a Department of Veterans Affairs or something similar.

There is a dizzying array of other organizations offering services to veterans and families—way more than I can go into here. The Military Family Network (emilitary.org) has a ton of resources and a comprehensive directory of providers that’s well worth exploring.

Your husband currently has life insurance through the military (Servicemembers Group Life Insurance—SGLI), which he can convert to a veteran’s policy (VGLI) but it has to be done soon after discharge.

One more idea: Look into the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. This wonderful program lets veterans tell their stories (orally, in writing, or in pictures), which then become a permanent part of the Library’s collection. If your husband has stories—and everyone does—have him visit loc.gov/vets.

Finally, I recorded in-depth interviews with a number of VSOs. You’ll be able to hear them on the military version of my radio show, “Positive Parenting.” Check militaryfather.com – Coming Up – for the schedule.

Giving Military Dads a Reason to Live

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband is deployed overseas right now and we just had our baby girl. He was home for the birth, but had to leave only 20 days after. He really doesn’t seem to take much interest in her. We talk over Skype all the time but he still keeps some emotional distance between him and our daughter. How can I let him know that he’s a father and help him actually feel like one?

A: First, my sincere thanks to you and your husband (and your daughter) for your service to our country. Thanks also for trying to help your husband—he’s lucky to have you in his corner. There has been a lot of talk lately about supporting our military families and I applaud the efforts of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden to bring those needs to light. But despite their good work, almost all of their efforts have been aimed at supporting the families back home (which is incredibly important).

Unfortunately, there are almost no resources that focus on the needs of the deployed servicemembers themselves. That’s precisely why I wrote my book, “The Military Father: A Hands-on Guide for Deployed Dads.” Military dads (and moms) need as much support as they can get to help them maintain strong relationships with their children and spouse. And don’t be fooled: This isn’t just a nice-to-have kind of thing. Research has shown that when servicemembers feel connected to and needed by their family, and feel like they know what’s happening at home and are an important part of it, some of the effects of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) can be reduced. On the flip side, feeling disconnected, unimportant, unneeded, unloved, or unappreciated aggravates PTSD and contributes directly to the increased rates of divorce and suicide in military families.

Sadly, the dynamic you so poignantly described is very common among young military dads. When you think about it, it makes pretty good sense. There are a number of things that could be going on. To start with, your husband may be feeling rather useless and he may be putting up all that emotional distance as a way of protecting himself. After all, he’s thousands of miles away while you’re there every day with the baby. In his mind he’ll never be able to catch up, and his daughter will never love him as much as she loves you. There’s also a good chance that your husband has heard stories from some of the other dads in his unit who’ve been through multiple deployments. They may have told him how incredibly painful it is to come home and have your baby or toddler cry or run away and hide instead of giving you a huge welcome-home-daddy hug.

He also may be trying to protect your daughter. If he’s concerned that he won’t be coming home (and it would be surprising if those thoughts didn’t cross his mind), he may have decided that there’s no sense in getting too attached to her—or for her to start getting too attached to him. An irrational—but completely understandable—line of thinking.

So what can you do? Remind him often of how important he is to you and your daughter, and how much you need him. Tell him that you show the baby his picture and talk about him every day. Send him pictures, handprints, and other reminders (don’t try to get the baby to say Hi to daddy on Skype. Babies are notorious for going on strike—and screaming or crying—when they’re supposed to be performing).
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Taking Care of Mrs GI Dad

Dear Mr. Dad: You’ve written a lot of about how deployed dads can maintain strong relationships with their children while they’re away—and I’ve learned a lot of great stuff. But what about my wife? How do I keep my relationship with her strong too?

A: Excellent question! With all the attention that gets paid to dad-child relationships, it’s easy to forget that military marriages need plenty of care and feeding as well. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Adapt some of the kid-related activities you’re doing and use them with your wife. For example, if you’re making CDs or DVDs to send home, don’t stop with the kids’ books. Record some poetry or a chapter of a novel you’re both interested in reading. Send some R-rated—or X if you’re feeling brave—love notes home (in sealed envelopes) and have your children hide them where Mommy will find them.
  • Don’t compare or criticize. Yes, you may be dealing with life-threatening situations every day. Meanwhile, back at home, your wife is going through some pretty intense battles too. It’s apples and oranges, so any comparison will be unfair to one side or the other. Your wife probably has the good sense not to tell you how to do your job, so show her the same courtesy.
  • Support her. Your wife truly needs to know that you understand that life isn’t easy for her right now. She also needs to know that you love he, you think she’s doing a great job, and you support her 100 percent.
  • Ask her to limit media consumption. If your wife is one of those obsessive news junkies—watching TV for hours and hours every day and consuming every other kind of news story she can lay her hands on or click a mouse at—do everything you can to get her to cut back. This kind of behavior is usually an indication that she’s highly stressed about your physical safety and desperately need sof some reassurance. As guys, we often like to report how tough our living conditions are, or go through a bullet-by-bullet description of a firefight we survived. But some information is best kept to yourself.
  • Encourage her to get some support. Whether you’re asking for it or not, you’re getting a lot of emotional and social support from the other guys in your unit. Each of you knows exactly what everyone else is going through, and sometimes just knowing you’re not alone can be very reassuring. Your wife needs to find a similar support network. Fortunately, every unit has some kind of family support organization where wives (or at-home husbands) can get together with others who share their experience. They offer everything from a safe place to vent frustrations to help with babysitting. Unfortunately, a majority of wives don’t participate in FRG activities.
  • Encourage her to keep a positive outlook. But be very careful how you do this. Telling a woman who’s overwhelmed, lonely, sad, and depressed to “cheer up” or “look at the bright side” won’t go over well. Reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons. It’s called “One-session psychotherapy,” and the illustration is of a therapist backhanding a patient across the face while yelling, “Snap out of it!”
  • Encourage her to relax. Downtime in our society is hugely underrated. And a little goes a long way. A couple of hours off to take a yoga class or just a long walk alone could energize your wife for the rest of the week.