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Reunion briefings: bridging the gap
By Spc. Landis Andrews, 444th MPAD; Photo by Kryn Westhoven, NJDMAVA/PA

Thousands of families across the state went through the gut-wrenching ordeal of saying goodbye to husbands, wives and children at the start of the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s historic Iraq deployment.

Welcoming them home will be a joyous event, for sure. But the days, weeks and months after the deployment ends won’t be without stress, or even heartache, as Soldiers try to ease back into lives that went on without them for a year.

With that reality in mind, the National Guard has been conducting a series of reunion briefings for the families of the deployed troops.

Marie Durling, the assistant family programs director, has been using these forums to try to lower families’ expectations.

“If you’re expecting your Soldier to drop their bags and run in slow motion towards you while you stand there with your arms wide open, you might be let down,” Durling said during a briefing at the Lawrenceville Armory in early April. “Don’t expect that beach fantasy because your Soldiers’ have been through a different experience than you have and that may not be what they want.”

Families from across New Jersey have participated at meetings in every armory and all of the reunion briefings have followed the same routine.

Durling focuses her talk on the adults, covering everything from family finances to rekindling romance. State youth coordinator Amanda Ballas talks to the children, covering everything from home safety and letter writing to learning how to express their feelings to their returning parents.

“Children don’t take things as well as the adults do,” Ballas said. “You have to talk to them on their level because there is a lot more confusion.”

That’s an issue that Sara Luchenta is already facing. “My daughter was just a baby when her Daddy left, and now she’s walking and talking,” Luchenta said. “My husband missed a very crucial part of her life.”

Her husband, 1st Lt. Jeffery Hager is expected to return home with the 50th Chemical Company, but his daughter is a bit apprehensive about meeting her father for the first time.

“She has been waking up crying in the middle of the night because of nightmares that when Jeff comes home he won’t know who she is,” Luchenta said. “She is worried that her dad won’t recognize her and know that she is his daughter.”

The 32-year old mother of two has her own reservations about her husband’s return. “Before he left I didn’t drive but while he was gone I had to get my license. Now I’m used to driving everywhere and taking the kids wherever they need to be. It’s going to be hard giving up the keys when I’ve gotten so used to being in control,” Luchenta said. Julio Quiniones must also be prepared to relinquish some control, but in a more domestic arena.

“My wife used to write all of the checks and do most of the work around the house,” Quiniones said. “I got used to doing things my way at home and being in charge of everything, including the checkbook. Giving that up might be hard.”

Quiniones, the husband of Master Sgt. Mariana Soto-Quiniones, was reassured that he would not have to hand over the spending power so suddenly. “[Durling] said that it’s good not to jump right back into the way things used to be because they might not be ready for so much responsibility yet. That means I can still be in charge for a little while longer.”

After the briefing in Lawrenceville, many of the family members who attended said they felt better because they learned their particular worries were actually common concerns.

“My main thing was to find out about getting the money situation straight. Now that those questions are answered we can work on planning our vacation,” Luchenta said. “We’re going to Disney World!”

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Volume 34 Number 4 Staff / Information
(c) 2009 NJ Department of Military and Veterans Affairs