How can you handle the strain of long distance communication during a deployment?
First, talk about expectations. You each need to be aware of the challenges of deployment communication, and come up with a communication plan before he deploys. Will he even be able to use his cell phone during deployment? Will he be in an area with wi-fi? Will he have to wait in lines for computer access? Knowing the possibilities will help you each have reasonable expectations. Obviously he can’t send you text messages without a phone, or emails without a computer. So have an honest talk about how often you each expect to hear from the other. This will go a long way towards preventing frustration and anger!
Know the options for long distance communication. Usually the choices are: Phone calls, Emails, Skype, Messenger Apps (like Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts), and of course hand-written letters. Even if this isn’t your first deployment, communication options change in different areas and units. So ask around and find out as much as you can about where they will go. Many service members have to wait in lines to make a phone call or use a computer, so they can’t predict when they can call you or for how long. Also, depending on location, they may need to buy phone cards and keep them filled up in order to talk. Apps like Skype and Facetime can only be used on your own personal electronic devices (if he is bringing any) and only in areas with Wi-Fi. So it may take a while for him to play around with different ways to reach you, and you have to understand that your communication routine may change halfway through the deployment if he changes locations.
Consider the Pros and Cons of different types of long distance communication. Basically, nothing is ideal during deployment. Everyone always wants to hear from or see their spouse more often. But here is a handy chart listing the typical communication options, and the pros and cons of each. Let’s go through it.
- Phone Calls are great, but not always possible if he has to wait in line to use a sat phone. The calls can be short, and sometimes won’t come for weeks at a time. The worst part is that the government numbers don’t receive outside calls, so if you miss a call you can’t call him back. This is nerve-wracking, and it is the reason military spouses always keep their phones nearby! Also, because of the time zone difference on the other side of the world, he may only be able to call you in the middle of the night, which is frustrating.
- Email is wonderful because you can send a quick message with a thought, a question, an update, or a photo, and the other person can receive it at their convenience and reply right away. Many military spouses have ongoing conversations and make important future decisions from email conversations! The downside is that the military member doesn’t always have an Internet connection. Also, remember that government email addresses are not private, so be careful what you send!
- Hand-written letters were once the only way to communicate with troops. They are still a classic, romantic gesture that are a great way to express yourself or share what is happening in your daily life. They are a huge morale booster, and can be treasured and re-read anytime. The downside? They take forever to arrive. Current deployments usually take 2-3 weeks to receive mail from America. And a military member’s written reply will take just as long.
- Video apps like Skype and Facetime can make for amazing moments during a deployment, especially if a father is meeting his baby for the first time. It is a great way for kids to connect with their deployed parent, because they can see them and interact with the screen. However, these apps can only be used on personal electronic devices, and will require Wi-fi, which isn’t always an option. Also, the frustration of technology is real. Half of military Skype calls are usually spent repeating yourself to a fuzzy blob on the screen. Half of military Skype calls are usually spent repeating yourself to a fuzzy blob on the screen. #milspouse #deploymentsucks Click To Tweet Not exactly ideal for discussing anything important. Also, since it is a real-time conversation, be prepared for awkward moments of silence. The service member’s life is basically the same every day, so they quickly run out of things to talk about. Try to keep interesting stories and funny anecdotes stored up for them, so you can share those and keep the conversation going.
- Messenger Apps like Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts can be a great way to keep a conversation going during deployment. It is almost like texting, but without phones or data charges. Of course, the service member will need internet access, but it doesn’t have to be Wi-fi. That makes these apps a lot more useful during deployment. It erases the time zone challenge, because you can leave a quick message for the other person to see when they wake up. Or you can have a real-time conversation without the inconvenience of breaking it into emails. If you are on your phone, you can even take a picture and include it in the chat. When I gave birth while my husband was deployed, Skype wasn’t available, so we used an app like this. I was literally typing to him while I was in labor, and he got a picture of the newborn baby right away!
What about communication black-outs? Even in well-equipped locations, there are occasional black-out periods called ‘River City,’ when the unit shuts down all outgoing communication. This means no phone calls, no email, and no messages. This is for troop safety, in case of an unplanned event, a casualty or a sensitive operation. It doesn’t always represent bad news or danger! River City is often just part of a training plan. But the spouses back home have no way of knowing when River City is happening. If you suddenly do not receive emails or phone calls for a while, that could be why. It usually only lasts a few days. Once the condition has been lifted, the troops are free to communicate again. It can be frustrating waiting for a call and not knowing how long it will be. But try to stay calm and focus on things that you can control. Your loved one will contact you as soon as it is allowed.
Know what to use for emergency communication. In a true emergency where you need to reach your deployed spouse right away, none of these communication options are very effective. You could write an email, but he may not see it for a few days. So if there is a medical emergency, a death in the family, or a true financial crisis, then you will need a way to communicate with him right away. There are two ways to do this.You should always begin by contacting your unit’s FRO (Marine Corps), FRG (Army), or Ombudsman (Navy). This is a civilian paid to work for the unit and keep in contact with families at home. They have a direct line to the unit leadership, so they can get in touch with your spouse even during a communication black-out period. The other way to reach someone for emergency contact is with a Red Cross message. These are typically used to announce births or deaths in a family. I have already reviewed the steps for sending Red Cross messages here. So don’t stress about not being able to reach your service member for an actual emergency.
Once you become familiar with all these types of communication, you will learn which ones to use for different types of conversations. Military spouses often have to store up their questions and ideas and wait for the right time to express themselves. Knowing your options for long distance communication makes deployments a lot easier to survive. Do you have a favorite app or way to communicate with your deployed service member? Please share!