Abstract: A "Gradual Swing Back into Us:" Active Duty Army Spouses' Homecoming and Reintegration Experiences Post-Deployment (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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A "Gradual Swing Back into Us:" Active Duty Army Spouses' Homecoming and Reintegration Experiences Post-Deployment

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Alison Drew, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Boston University, Boston, MA
Abby Blankenship, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
Ellen DeVoe, PhD, LICSW, Professor, Boston University, Boston, MA
Background and Purpose: Military spouses are revered as the backbone of the military family (USO, 2018) due to their roles in managing household and family responsibilities during deployment while also supporting the service member. While there is general acknowledgement that deployments can be a stressful time for military spouses, less is known about spouses’ experiences during the homecoming and reintegration phases of deployment. While reunions may be times of joy, transitions in household and parenting roles may also lead to stress and challenges within the family system. This presentation will examine three key research questions to better understand spouses’ homecoming experiences: 1) What are spouses' experiences immediately surrounding the return of their husband? 2) How do families adjust long-term after the service member returns home? 3) How do spouses feel that they and their husband have changed post-deployment?

Methods: Participants were 16 female spouses of active duty U.S. Army soldiers who had experienced a deployment within the past 2 years and had at least one child under the age of 6 years in their home at the time of deployment. Participants completed an in-depth, semi-structured interview addressing their family’s experiences across the deployment cycle with particular focus on transitions in parenting. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim then coded thematically. Analysis examined spouses’ reports of their family’s experiences leading up to and immediately after the soldier’s homecoming, facilitators and challenges to adjustment during reintegration, and changes in themselves and their soldier post-deployment.

Results: Spouses reported that the time surrounding their husband’s return post-deployment was one of excitement, but also great transition in their household that was often accompanied by stress. Most families were able to work through these changes and show positive adjustment and functioning over time. However, there were a few families where spouses reported more severe challenges post-deployment and reported that they were not functioning well months after the service member’s return. These spouses reported feeling disconnected and disengaged from their husbands, and were responsible for all or nearly all household and childcare responsibilities. In about half of these struggling families, the spouse reported that their husband was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms that were not being well managed. Case studies will be presented to demonstrate the differences between families that adapted well and those that faced more on-going challenges post-deployment.

Conclusions and Implications: Overall, these Army spouses showed considerable resiliency in managing the stress and transitions associated with their husbands’ return post-deployment, even amongst those facing more severe challenges. The findings suggest several areas for potential intervention by social workers. Specifically, many spouses noted the lack of universal supports such as trainings for spouses on what to expect and how to plan for post-deployment life that could normalize the challenges that families face during these transitions. In addition, these findings highlight the need for more targeted, family-based interventions for higher risk families such as those with strained marital relationships or families with a service member returning with a physical or psychological injury.