Deployment is tough for both service members and their families. Melissa Porrey of Alexandria, Virginia, saw this close-up in her work as a mental health counselor: the anger, the disconnection, the flashbacks.
But experiencing it first hand was something she never thought she’d have to go through. Until her husband enlisted.
Melissa met her husband Ted while they were in college. They began dating, and continued seeing each other after graduation.
After her first job as an editor, Melissa became a mental health counselor for members of the military and their families.
In the course of her work, she has helped veterans and their families through tragedy and bereavement.
Seeing the suffering of the people she was counseling made one thing clear in her mind:
“I swore I would never marry someone in the military,” Melissa told Humanity.
Ted wasn’t in the military when he and Melissa met. After they graduated from college, he worked in construction.
However, he didn’t feel any personal fulfillment in his job. He decided to enlist in the United States Navy, and it finally gave him the personal and professional purpose he was seeking.
“He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he pursued it,” Melissa explained.
The couple continued to date while Ted was on his first deployment. Melissa still had reservations about marrying someone in the services.
“I also was working with bereaved military families and I thought ‘Nope. Not for me. There are too many really tragic, difficult things that can happen,'” Melissa recalled.
Both Melissa and Ted had to deal with the struggles that come with military life.
Ted contended with the dangers of deployment in the Middle East, separation from Melissa, and readjusting to civilian life when he returned home.
Melissa, in turn, had to cope with the separation from Ted, and the constant worry she felt for him.
Ted would deploy for six months, and then would return for six months. They had to adjust from being together to being independent, and vice versa.
“It was this constant going back and forth from being a couple, and then being independent,” Melissa explained.
It was especially difficult for Ted to repeatedly go through this type of change.
“He felt like he never left deployment,” Melissa said.
“Every time he was home there was this period of transition where he had to get to know his home life again, and then by the time he knew it, it was time to start preparing to leave again.”
Ted wouldn’t always receive much notice before a deployment. Sometimes it was a month; sometimes it was only two weeks.
The first time Ted deployed, Melissa felt like she was emotionally prepared.
“I still wasn’t quite sure what was happening,” Melissa explained.
She tried to get on with her own life, and to not think too much.
However, Melissa couldn’t help herself. She would turn on the television or go to work and know what was happening overseas. It was a constant reminder of the danger Ted faced.
When Ted returned home from his first deployment, it was a happy reunion, but the cracks were already starting to appear.
“For him I think it was a little bit more challenging,” Melissa remembered.
Despite the difficulties, Melissa and Ted got married in 2010.
Life went on but with each return from deployment, small issues would begin to emerge.
Ted would wake up at 3 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. So he would go for a run in the middle of the night.
Despite all her training, Melissa felt like she didn’t know how to be supportive enough.
“When he came home, I don’t think I truly saw how truly affected he was,” Melissa said.
Until one particular experience made Melissa realize that Ted’s experience overseas had changed him.
They were driving to see Ted’s family when they heard a loud noise outside. A car had backfired.
Ted was driving the car, and suddenly reacted. He was no longer in the present and he reached for his gun, which wasn’t there.
“He was sort of taken out of the moment in the blink of an eye,” Melissa recalled.
When Ted snapped back to reality, Melissa asked him where his mind had gone to; she had never seen that happen to a person before.
“I don’t know. That was weird. All of a sudden I just wasn’t here in this moment,” Melissa recalled him saying.
That was the moment Melissa knew Ted had changed significantly.
He had been through stressful, often dangerous situations, and it had affected him.
“That was the first realization for me where I thought he’s not the exact same person, and I can’t expect him to be the exact same person,” Melissa recalled.
Veterans are often expected to return home and resume civilian life without their experiences overseas affecting their everyday life, an expectation Melissa shared, despite her professional knowledge.
“I kind of expected him to just be the same person that I had known before he joined the military,” Melissa said.
Now she understood.
To help Ted readjust to civilian life, the couple focused on communication.
“Fortunately for us, that was the only experience he had like that. For us we were able to manage it, and it didn’t get worse for him,” Melissa said, referring to the incident in the car.
They were open and honest with each other, which helped them communicate and confront their issues.
“He knew that he could ask me questions about what he might be experiencing. We never got to a point where we were like ‘This is more than the two of us can handle,'” Melissa explained.
To combat the stress and as meditative exercise they would go running together.
“It was a way we could disconnect from the world, but still be together in the world,” Melissa explained.
Over time, the couple discussed the direction of their respective careers. Starting a family would greatly influence Ted’s career path.
The couple had their first child while Ted was in the Navy.
“I don’t want to continue this when we have kids,” Melissa recalled Ted feeling.
After eight years in the Navy, Ted retired. He now works for the Department of Defense.
“He decided ‘You know what, I can still serve my country in a different way and not have to remain on active duty.’ We decided together that it was going to be for the best for him to do that,” Melissa said.
For Melissa, her experience of helping Ted only solidified the type of counseling she wanted to be in.
Melissa is now a mental health lead for the American Red Cross. Her personal insight makes her highly effective at her job as a counselor.
She helps families prepare and deal with the issues service members and families have to contend with before, during, and after deployment.
She teaches veterans and their families physical and psychological ways to deal with the issues that come with deployment and returning home.
And particularly as a result of their experience in the car, Melissa can effectively counsel service members and their families about how to manage anger and stress, and how to identify depression when soldiers return home.
Although members of the military only represent a small percentage of our population, they are part of our community, Melissa says, and it’s worth remembering what they have sacrificed.
“They’re not these other people. They’re not strangers. They’re your next door neighbors. They’re people who are just like you.”