I'm at School, My Friend's at War
David Onestak, Ph.D.
As we begin to confront the new and difficult realities related to the war with Iraq, an increasing number of students approach me with their concerns about high school and college friends who have been (or may soon be) deployed for military service. These students, like the young adults of previous war-time generations, express feelings commonly associated with the trauma of military deployment (e.g., fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, etc.), with particular apprehension about what they will experience if they are engaged in combat.
These students are describing completely normal responses to an acutely troubling situation. Nevertheless, they face the issue of how best to cope with the deployment and possible combat involvement of their friends. From my perspective, perhaps the single most critical challenge for these students is to sustain a focus not on their fears (no member of any campus community can alter the path of even one bomb or bullet) but on what does remain under their control.
To you students, I suggest that it is important to take care of yourself and to attempt to go about "business as usual." Some students may mistakenly conclude that, given the risks being faced by their friends in the military, their own personal needs and academic pursuits are insignificant. This is not true. If you allow yourself to decay intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you will soon be of no use to yourself or anyone else. In fact, you may actually become a source of concern for others, adding to their existing burden and making it more difficult for them to cope.
It is best to:
- Take it day by day. Stick to the academic, work, and social schedules that give structure to your daily life. There is comfort in these routines.
- Try to eat well and get enough rest.
- Exercise regularly.
- Avoid excesses in alcohol and other drugs.
- Limit your exposure to the emotionally draining impact of television war coverage. The demands of the twenty-four-hour-a-day news cycle encourage the media to inflate even the most minor events into "breaking news." Is it really going to benefit you to watch the same bomb footage over and over again?
- Spend time with people that you care about and do things with them that you enjoy.
- Seek support and comfort from spiritual leaders and others in your faith community.
- If you are struggling, talk about your feelings and ask for support from friends and family. If things become more overwhelming, contact the Counseling Center and request an appointment to discuss these issues.
While the previously listed suggestions are all important to coping effectively with deployment/combat issues, perhaps the best thing that you can do for yourself is to reach out and find meaningful ways to be helpful to others, especially your friends in the military. For example, just like freshman at Binghamton University, service members are overjoyed to get a letter, card, or package from home. Consistent efforts to communicate with your friends who have been deployed can do wonders to raise their morale and strengthen them for the challenges that they face. In fact, some incredibly moving and courageous compositions have been written between soldiers and their friends and loved ones (if you are interested, do a Google search for the 1861 letter written by Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah during the American Civil War).
However, communicating with deployed military personnel can be complicated, especially during times of war, so a couple things you should consider are:
- The frequency is probably more important than the length of the communications.
- The military services will not provide you with contact information for your friends. Their parents and/or spouses should have the required information.
- While all service members will have email accounts, it is unlikely that electronic communications will be "instant." Due to variables such as mission activity and the availability of computers, a soldier's response may be delayed for a week or more. Technological advancements have led some to speculate that, similar to the old practice of waiting in long lines at a phone booth to call home, soldiers will now be standing in long lines waiting to use computers for e-mail.
- Snail-mail letters and cards are still one of the least expensive and most satisfactory ways to stay in touch with military personnel. Their advantage is that they can be reread during lonely moments or at times when other forms of communication are not available. Military postal systems will be set up near units, and estimates are that delivery times will average about ten days. Letters composed on a computer can be saved and collected in a book to be presented upon your friend's return.
- If you are sending a package, check out the United States Postal Service (website www.usps.com) for information about what can and cannot be shipped to various locations. Be creative with your packages. Send photos, silly toys, newly released CDs, and interesting home newspaper and DEN articles. Make sure any food items are not perishable. Because of the high cost of calling home, phone cards are an especially welcomed and valued gift to include in letters and packages. Be sure to research the rules and restrictions of phone cards before your purchase.
- Your friends may not be able to share much information about their location or mission. At the same time, they may talk passionately about their unit and their desire to serve their country. This enthusiasm is essential to your friends' success and safety in combat, and it is important for you to recognize and honor this part of their experience.
- Even if you have feelings to the contrary (e.g., "The French are right; you shouldn't be there anyway"), it is important to keep your communications positive, upbeat, and supportive. Humorous stories about family and/or shared friends can transcend geographical distances and help service members feel close and connected to the important people in their lives.
- If you decide you would like to extend your good will efforts beyond your friend, you can inquire if there is anyone in his or her unit who is not getting mail and request contact information for that person. The National Military Family Association (www.nmfa.org) can provide additional information about more general efforts to support our service men and women.
In closing, while it may seem premature at this point, you should begin to contemplate and prepare for your friend's return to the States. Friends and loved ones of military service members frequently have fantasies of what the reunion will be like, often harboring a strong desire to return to "the way we were." However, the passage time and the experience of being deployed, not to mention the potentially life-altering impact of armed combat, can result in dramatic changes both within and between people. It is important to be willing to spend the time necessary to slowly reacquaint with one another and to reestablish the relationship on both old and new terms.
Courtesy of David Onestak
Director, Eastern University Counseling Center