Military families learn to readjust at wellness retreat

OCEAN SHORES - When Sgt. Brian O'Gorman was deployed to Iraq, his wife, Kimberly, was left to care for their two young children, with a third on the way.

He returned in November 2005 injured after surviving several explosions. He was jumpy and angry and had nightmares, Kimberly said.

She was so tired from parenting alone that she neglected her personal health.

Now, life is evening out. The family bought a home in Olympia. Kimberly is finishing a psychology degree and focusing more on her health. O'Gorman, who received a medical discharge, plans to become a stay-at-home dad and work on a home business.

But the emotional toll of Brian O'Gorman's deployment would strain even the tightest-knit families, his family says.

"So many of the couples ended up divorced when they got back," Kimberly O'Gorman said. "When you love somebody enough, you're willing to commit to that process. You get through it, and you're stronger for it."

The O'Gormans were among 13 families to attend a Family Wellness Retreat in Ocean Shores this week. It was the first such retreat offered to Fort Lewis families. Workshops focused on how to solve family problems, communication and coping with change.

The techniques apply to any family, but military families have the added stress of long separations, said Fort Lewis Chaplain Ken Alford, who helped lead the sessions.

"You have the possibility of deployment all the time, and that has some of the same effects that death or divorce can have," he said.

Deployment tears apart a rising number of couples. Divorce among Army officers is up 78 percent since 2003, USA Today reported earlier this month. Divorce among enlisted personal was up 28 percent since 2003 and 53 percent since 2000.

Alford said he hopes the retreat will give couples tools to help them cope.

"I'm really hoping they have stronger families," he said.

Coping with deployment

Communication is key when a soldier deploys, Alford said. He recommends that families update the solider about common experiences, such as when a teenager starts dating or a child becomes potty-trained.

"That's important because the family back home is having to do all the everyday, ordinary things without the soldier," he said.

He also suggests books on relationships and parenting that couples can read and discuss.

Once home, the solider might need some space to adjust, he said. Soldiers are coming home to changes; kids have left for college, grandchildren have been born, children who were in diapers are walking and talking.

While the soldier might feel like pulling away, he needs to make an effort to listen to his family's stories, Alford said.

"The children have a whole year of things to talk about," he said.

Another challenge is that many soldiers try to apply the rank and order of the military to their family, Alford said.

"Soldiers that come back from deployment bring with them a certain sort of skills that worked well in deployment, but those skills don't translate very well at home," he said.

They have to learn to be part of the family again.

Parenting as a team

Kimberly O'Gorman said she recommends couples see a counselor upon the soldier's return because of the stress of combat.

She also recommends establishing roles and responsibilities for each parent. She said she resisted allocating responsibilities at first because she was accustomed to handling household chores and disciplining.

She and her husband still are learning to parent as a team, she said.

"He approaches it more from an Army perspective: commanding and expecting immediate obedience. I feel it's more appropriate to give them options, ... give them opportunities to make choices," she said.

Brian O'Gorman said he learned his parenting style from growing up in a military family and from his 16 years in the Army.

He hopes the workshop helps him interact better with his daughters.

"I was hoping to listen a little bit better to what my kids want, cause I'm having a hard time with that," he said. Kimberly hopes the retreat will help to get them "both on the same page. It's an opportunity to do this together, to be involved as an entire family."

Diane Huber is a reporter for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-357-0204 or dhuber@theolympian.com.


For online resources for soldiers and military families, click the links with this story at www.theolympian.com. Further resources for military families

Strong Bonds, which offers programs for single soldiers, couples and families, as well as coping tactics for soldiers being deployed or redeployed: www.strongbonds.org

The Center of Excellence for Soldiers and Families, which offers information on family activities, support groups, day care and more: www.lewis.army.mil/Ctr%5FOf%5FExcellence/sites/local

Family Resource Center, which has information on family-readiness groups: www.lewisfamilyfocus.com/FamilyResourceCenter.htm

Moms Club of Lacey, which offers play groups, baby sitting, moms' night out and a military moms' night out: 360-455-5014 or www.geocities.com/laceymomsclub.

Other online resources

Military OneSource: www.militaryonesource.com

Tricare Military Health System: www.tricare.mil

Triwest Healthcare Alliance: www.triwest.com/triwest