Blog: Fort Hood: Living with loss

Jenna Baddeley, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, has conducted fascinating research with soldiers at Ft. Hood. In a recent post on the GradNews Blog, she discusses what she has learned about the numerous difficulties these soldiers face when they return home from war.

The Fort Hood community has suffered well-publicized losses in the recent shooting that left thirteen people dead. What is perhaps less obvious is that most members of that community live with unpublicized life-altering losses, both threatened and actual, every day.

My adviser, James Pennebaker, a team of research assistants and I took several trips to Fort Hood last year. We were testing whether an expressive writing intervention -- writing about one's deepest thoughts and feelings about an emotional upheaval -- could be part of helping military couples adjust to life together after the soldier's return home from deployment. (For more information about our results, see the article featuring our study in October's issue of the Monitor on Psychology.)

Our participants turned in their writing samples at the end of the study. Their writing testified to how disorienting deployments, especially repeated deployments, can be. Soldiers fight abroad for over a year at a time, return home for a year, then deploy again, and the cycle repeats. While soldiers are in Iraq or Afghanistan, many undergo significantly traumatic experiences. When they return home, many feel that they are no longer the person they used to be. They may be quicker to anger, more vigilant to threatening sounds in the environment, more easily upset, less affectionate.

Meanwhile, the spouse has, of necessity, taken on all the responsibilities of maintaining a home, and has often grown more independent in the soldier's absence. Both spouses have difficulty understanding who the other has become. Soldiers are often absent for milestones in their children's lives: first words, first steps, first days at school. It is no wonder that so many feel like strangers in their own home when they return. Our participants often wrote that each succeeding deployment was harder, not easier.

In many ways, deployments aren't a stressor that people get used to managing; they are an upheaval that results in more losses each time. If soldiers rebuild what they have lost -- the close connection to family, the interdependence with their spouses, the faith in a benevolent world -- they do so with the heartbreaking knowledge that another loss is just around the corner. One of our participants said it poignantly: "I fear that I will become close to my family just to be torn away again."

Army life is an enormous challenge; all of our participants could agree on that. Many of the soldiers and spouses expressed well-earned pride in their endurance through the struggles of their separations and reunions. The sacrifices our soldiers and their families make for us are deeper than most of us grasp, even with imagination and effort. A compounding tragedy on their home ground is beyond even that. We honor their strength and their personal sacrifices. We owe them more than we can repay.