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Kevlar for the Mind: How to cope with the strain of holiday deployments

Dec. 15, 2011 - 12:20PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 15, 2011 - 12:20PM  |  
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About the author

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and is the author of "Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment." Click here to email him. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

The holiday season is arguably the toughest time to be separated from family and friends. Even the fondest memories of past holidays can only temporarily lessen the sadness and emptiness that often occurs during this time of year.

Today, tens of thousands of troops are serving around the globe. Physical distance from loved ones is a necessary cost of being a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. It's a steep cost, paid with limited emotional reserves, one that can never be recouped.

As someone who missed many holidays with family and friends because of deployments, I understand the emotional burden. I also understand the critical importance of being able to maintain focus on the mission. Below are four lessons I learned that can help you manage the holiday deployment blues:

Attend the celebration virtually. Audio and video technology is widely available on ships, foreign bases and posts, even in remote combat zones. If possible, schedule a face-to-face video session with your loved ones. Have an agenda such as opening presents, sharing a cup of hot cocoa with your children, or telling your spouse how much she means to you. Or do all three. Even though you'll be separated by thousands of miles, seeing each other's faces can be healing. For those who don't have access to this technology, send a video or audio tape sharing your holiday wishes to those you care about.

Celebrate with your deployed family if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with, as Stephen Stills once said. Not a perfect example for my point, but there is wisdom in that lyric. Celebrate with and enjoy those around you. Make new traditions and memories with your brothers and sisters in arms.

Get a jump on planning a special holiday season next year. Instead of brooding about missing this holiday with your family, start thinking about how you can make next year the best ever. Plan a trip. Think of new traditions to start. Keep your mind focused on the unlimited possibilities of the future and not the limitations of today.

Give thanks for the less-than-pleasant parts of the season. This may seem odd coming from a psychologist, but spend some time thinking about the things you won't miss. Give thanks that you won't have to navigate the chaotic mall parking lots and food courts. Be grateful that you won't have the irony of needing a vacation after what's supposed to be a relaxing and joyous time.

If you're deployed and feeling down, keep in mind that millions of us back home are thinking of you and your family. Stay focused, stay safe, and we'll see you next holiday season.

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