I'm at School, My Friend's at War
David Onestak, Ph.D.
Director, Counseling Center
An increasing number of students approach me with their concerns about high school and college
friends who have been (or may soon be) deployed for military service. These students, like the
young adults of previous war-time generations, express feelings commonly associated with the trauma
of military deployment (e.g., fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, etc.), with particular apprehension
about what they will experience if actual combat occurs.
These students are describing completely normal responses to an acutely troubling situation.
Nevertheless, they face the issue of how best to cope with the deployment and possible combat
involvement of their friends. From my perspective, perhaps the single most critical challenge for
these students is to sustain a focus not on their fears (no member of Eastern's campus community
can alter the path of even one bomb or bullet if fighting ensues) but on what does remain under
To you students, I suggest that it is important to take care of yourself and to attempt to go
about "business as usual." Some students may mistakenly conclude that, given the risks being
faced by their friends in the military, their own personal needs and academic pursuits are
insignificant. This is not true. If you allow yourself to decay intellectually, physically,
emotionally, and spiritually, you will soon be of no use to yourself or anyone else. In fact,
you may actually become a source of concern for others, adding to their existing burden and making
it more difficult for them to cope.
It is best to:
- Take it day by day. Stick to the academic, work, and social schedules that give structure
to your daily life. There is comfort in these routines.
- Try to eat well and get enough rest.
- Exercise regularly (the spring break rush at the Rec. is now over!).
- Avoid excesses in alcohol and other drugs.
- Limit your exposure to the emotionally draining impact of television war coverage. The
demands of the twenty-four-hour-a-day news cycle encourage the media to inflate even the most
minor events into "breaking news." Is it really going to benefit you to watch the same bomb
footage over and over again?
- Spend time with people that you care about and do things with them that you enjoy.
- Seek support and comfort from spiritual leaders and others in your faith community.
- If you are struggling, talk about your feelings and ask for support from friends and family.
If things become more overwhelming, contact the Counseling Center and request an appointment to
discuss these issues.
While the previously listed suggestions are all important to coping effectively with
deployment/combat issues, perhaps the best thing that you can do for yourself is to reach out and
find meaningful ways to be helpful to others, especially your friends in the military. For
example, just like freshman at Eastern, service members are overjoyed to get a letter, card, or
package from home.
Consistent efforts to communicate with your friends who have been deployed can do wonders to
raise their morale and strengthen them for the challenges that they face. In fact, some incredibly
moving and courageous compositions have been written between soldiers and their friends and loved
ones (if you are interested, do a Google search for the 1861 letter written by Sullivan Ballou to
his wife Sarah during the American Civil War).
However, communicating with deployed military personnel can be complicated, especially during
times of war, so a couple things you should consider are:
- The frequency is probably more important than the length of the communications.
- The military services will not provide you with contact information for your friends. Their
parents and/or spouses should have the required information.
- While all service members will have e-mail accounts, it is unlikely that electronic
communications will be "instant." Due to variables such as mission activity and the availability
of computers, a soldier's response may be delayed for a week or more. Technological advancements
have led some to speculate that, similar to the old practice of waiting in long lines at a phone
booth to call home, soldiers will now be standing in long lines waiting to use computers for
- Snail-mail letters and cards are still one of the least expensive and most satisfactory ways
to stay in touch with military personnel. Their advantage is that they can be reread during lonely
moments or at times when other forms of communication are not available. Military postal systems
will be set up near units, and estimates are that delivery times will average about ten days.
Letters composed on a computer can be saved and collected in a book to be presented upon your
- If you are sending a package, check out the United States Postal Service website
(www.usps.com) for information about what can and cannot be shipped to various locations. Be
creative with your packages. Send photos, silly toys, newly released CDs, and interesting home
newspaper and DEN articles. Make sure any food items are not perishable. Because of the high cost
of calling home, phone cards are an especially welcomed and valued gift to include in letters and
packages. Be sure to research the rules and restrictions of phone cards before your purchase.
- Your friends may not be able to share much information about their location or mission. At
the same time, they may talk passionately about their unit and their desire to serve their country.
This enthusiasm is essential to your friends' success and safety in combat, and it is important for
you to recognize and honor this part of their experience.
- Even if you have feelings to the contrary (e.g., "The French are right; you shouldn't be
there anyway"), it is important to keep your communications positive, upbeat, and supportive.
Humorous stories about family and/or shared friends can transcend geographical distances and help
service members feel close and connected to the important people in their lives.
- If you decide you would like to extend your goodwill efforts beyond your friend, you can
inquire if there is anyone in his or her unit who is not getting mail and request contact
information for that person. The National Military Family Association (www.nmfa.org) can provide
additional information about more general efforts to support our service men and women.
In closing, while it may seem premature at this point, you should begin to contemplate and
prepare for your friend's return to the States. Friends and loved ones of military service
members frequently have fantasies of what the reunion will be like, often harboring a strong
desire to return to "the way we were." However, the passage time and the experience of being
deployed, not to mention the potentially life-altering impact of armed combat, can result in
dramatic changes both within and between people. It is important to be willing to spend the time
necessary to slowly reacquaint with one another and to reestablish the relationship on both old and