When Meredith Lozar’s daughter was just 3 and a half years old, her husband, Nick, came home from a tour of combat in Afghanistan.
He had been gone for nine months. During that time, Meredith did everything she could to keep their daughter connected to him — showing her photo albums and even giving her an old shirt of Nick’s to sleep with at night.
But when Nick finally came home, instead of the joyful reunion one might expect, Meredith watched her husband freeze with fear.
“He stood at the threshold of her room afraid to go inside … he wasn’t sure she would even remember him.”
While Nick was afraid he had been forgotten, those fears would quickly turn to joy.
“[Our daughter] recognized him immediately,” Meredith remembers. “While she did not go to him, she did kiss him on the cheek and say, ‘Hi Daddy.'”
And that meant the world to him; it was a major step forward as their family reunited, got used to being together again, and recovered from the stress of deployment.
Of course, this wasn’t Nick’s first homecoming nor would it be his last. Over his 17-year career as a Marine, his family lived through eight deployments and five combat tours. And with each reunion, there came new complex emotions, anxieties, fears, pain, and, of course, joy at finally being back together. But that’s the reality, Lozar says, of being a military family.
With the Fourth of July approaching, there’s never been a better time to learn more about military families and their experiences. That’s why we’ve created this list of 17 things military families want you to know about them.
1. Reunions aren’t always picture perfect.
Many of us have an image in our mind of how it plays out. A playful Labrador retriever tackles a man in military uniform, hardly able to contain excitement after months apart. Or a daughter is in tears as her mother, fresh off the plane in her combat boots, rushes to embrace her. After all, most of us have clicked on those emotional homecoming videos as they float across our newsfeeds.
But not every reunion goes down like that.
“I can tell you that it’s not that easy,” says Savannah Hewett, whose husband works as a security officer in the military.
Once, for example, she and her husband had been apart for 465 days. She had planned to surprise him at the airport only to find out that his deployment had suddenly been delayed by a week. Then, when that next week came, she had to wait over seven hours in the airport before she could finally embrace him.
2. Many families find ways to help their kids stay connected even while military members are away.
While separation can be difficult, there are creative ways that families stay connected to deployed loved ones. Some military members record a favorite bedtime story for their kids before deployment or create special photo albums. Even an old blanket or shirt can help a child feel comforted while mom or dad is away.
3. Finally coming back home can be an adjustment.
When military members come back home, it can take time for a family to reintegrate after having spent so much time apart.
Hewett describes that separation as living “two separate lives” — hers back at home while she parents and tries to maintain some sense of normalcy and his defending their country overseas. For kids, especially some who might not totally understand why a parent left or were too young to remember, seeing those lives come back together can be challenging.
Thankfully, those transitional times are made easier by organizations like Blue Star Families, which focuses on providing support to military families, including free events for them. Even a day at a planetarium can make all the difference for a family that is newly reunited.
That’s why Macy’s is making it easy for all of us to support charities like Blue Star Families. As part of their July 4 Give Back campaign, if you donate $3 at checkout in stores or online, you’ll receive 25% off your purchase and a portion of your donation goes to helping Blue Star Families with their mission.
4. Of course, being reunited isn’t the end of the story.
As long as they are enlisted, military members are still at work — and work can mean multiple deployments. Since 2001, more than 900,000 children have experienced the deployment of one or both parents multiple times.
“They’re still deploying to every clime and place, as is their job. And the unknowns and uncertainty that come along with that still exist,” Lozar says. “We don’t know, sometimes, when our service member will be home, and we don’t always know what they’re supporting. And that’s all part of it.”
5. Deployment isn’t like any normal long distance relationship, either.
It can be easy to try and put yourself in a military spouse’s shoes by remembering a time when you and your partner were long distance. It’s just not the same thing, though. Spouses not only have to grapple with distance, they also have to cope with the anxiety of not knowing if their spouse will return safely and how an injury or loss could change their family’s future.
6. Spouses trying to overcome that distance have to find ways to cope, which can mean getting a little creative.
It’s not uncommon to go months without hearing from a service member, particularly if they’re in active combat or special forces. Even a phone call or a letter home isn’t guaranteed to come with any regularity, which means that every time there’s breaking news about an attack, many families are left feeling helpless, not knowing if their military members are safe and dreading the worst.
That said, as technology has evolved, many military spouses have found new ways to stay connected. For military members with access to WiFi, virtual dates have become much more common thanks to platforms like Skype. So while the distance can be difficult, when spouses finally reconnect, seeing their loved one’s face is priceless.
7. All this time alone though means that some military families can start to feel isolated.
In fact, according to a survey conducted by Blue Star Families, more than half of military families feel they do not belong in their civilian communities.
“The price of war runs so much deeper than what I think most civilians realize,” Hewett explains. While trying to lead their own lives and fit into their new communities, they also have to deal with having a loved one at war while parenting alone — and it can take a toll.
That’s why Lozar works as Blue Star Families’ connected communities manager, helping military families better integrate into their communities.
8. This isolation isn’t helped by the fact that they have to move a lot.
According to the Blue Star Families annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 72% of military families live in their communities for two years or less before moving, which means they don’t get enough time to really form any deep connections with their communities.
It also means that the average military kid will have attended anywhere between six to nine schools by the time they’re a senior in high school. If you’ve ever been the new kid on the block or in class — not knowing where to sit at lunch or how to make new friends — imagine the emotional roller coaster that comes with being that kid every two years.
However, according to Hewett, many military families can be fortunate enough to move together, so families that developed close ties on one base may wind up making the same move to another.
9. But that’s just one of many sacrifices military kids make.
All the bedtime stories, birthdays, holidays, graduations, and sports games missed can take their toll. And the very real confusion, fear, and even anger over a parent’s absence, however noble that absence might be, means that these kids can struggle with their mental health a lot more than their civilian peers.
That said, with the right support, military kids can thrive. As with any mental health challenge, early intervention is key to ensuring youth have the resources they need to succeed.
10. Spouses make their own sacrifices too, including professional ones.
The military wife staring wistfully out of a window waiting for her husband to return is a stereotype. Being a military spouse simply isn’t a full-time job.
In fact, a second source of income is very important to many military families, who may find that a military income isn’t sufficient to support them. Not to mention, spouses often have career aspirations of their own, and those aspirations can sustain them while their partners are away.
11. Unfortunately military spouses can have a tough time getting hired.
The military spouse unemployment rate is estimated to be at least four times higher than the civilian rate. Because they often move frequently, their resumes can look a little different, with positions held for short periods of time or gaps when jobs were difficult to secure. That leads to many spouses remaining unemployed, underemployed, or taking on volunteer roles instead.
“[Employers] know they’re going to move in a couple years or a couple months,” says Hewett, who knows this issue all too well, having struggled herself to find meaningful work. That’s why she decided, after being unable to secure flexible work that fit into her family’s unpredictable schedule, to volunteer as the president of New Mexico’s Blue Star Families chapter to support families like hers.
Luckily, though, this is starting to change. Many companies are starting to make it a priority to hire military members and their spouses.
12. However, securing reliable childcare can be a challenge.
Spouses also struggle to land work because securing childcare can be difficult. “It’s very challenging for us because our service member doesn’t have [predictable] hours,” Hewett explains.
It’s difficult to know when you’ll need a sitter if your spouse is called to the base at the last minute, deploys with little time to prepare, or picks up an extra shift unexpectedly. “Often times, as the spouse, we are [both parents], at unexpected times and for long periods of times,” Hewett says.
And even when you finally figure out a good system, you’ll likely be moving again and have to start over. That’s why assistance programs and day cares that offer subsidized care for military families are so crucial.
13. Housing can be tricky, but it’s not all bad.
Obviously if you’re moving frequently, you can’t really buy a house and expect to live there forever. And with some military bases being very isolated, many families are faced with a difficult decision. They could live on base and take whatever the military is willing to provide, choose a location that isn’t near much of anything, or live entirely separate lives from their spouses until they can reunite again.
However, there are great aspects to living on base. Depending on where you’re stationed, some bases have campgrounds, community events, dancing, youth centers, arts and crafts centers, libraries, and bowling alleys. What’s more, many military families develop close bonds to other families in the area, creating an important sense of camaraderie.
14. There are a lot of misconceptions about their families — and the stereotypes hurt.
15. And that’s why, even with support from other military families, veterans need their civilian communities more than ever.
Studies are showing that many veterans struggle with loneliness, with vets reporting that their spouses are often their sole confidants.
With social and community support, as well as a little education, the mental health of military families could improve significantly. “Even one connection is all it takes to help a military family feel less isolated,” Lozar says.
16. Thankfully, that connection is something any one of us could offer.
Lozar says that being neighborly can make all the difference. “Military families want to be more involved in their neighborhoods,” Lozar explains.
“Be a good neighbor and go over and say hello,” she continues. “Help that person feel more welcome.”
Beyond a simple hello, support could look like volunteering with organizations like Blue Star Families, offering free child care to a local military family that’s struggling, helping those families connect with sports teams or clubs for their kids, and encouraging schools to reach out to new military families to get them more involved.
17. Even with these sacrifices, it doesn’t mean that military families regret their decision.
“There’s a lot of hardship, but there’s also a lot of good things, too. We have the opportunity to travel. We meet people all over the world,” Hewett says. “And somehow [the military becomes] your family.”
For families like Hewett’s, there is pride in knowing that they’ve contributed to something bigger than themselves.
“I don’t think anybody would regret being a military family,” she continues. “[We have] a higher purpose. There is something far greater than us that’s going on that we’re a part of.”
Salute those who serve by donating at Macy’s to organizations that support veteran and military families from June 28 to July 8.