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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:

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:

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

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Last Updated: 4/29/10