All the Skyping, e-mails and care packages during Gwen Zimmerman's deployment in Iraq couldn't prevent a strange feeling when she returned to her family in Princeton, Minn., in June 2009. Even at home, she felt like an outsider as her husband and two children went about the routines they had formed in her absence.
"I felt like I was still watching my family through the lens of a video camera instead of actually being there," she said.
It's a common lament from returning members of the Minnesota National Guard -- one that a University of Minnesota study is addressing.
In collaboration with the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, researchers are recruiting 400 Guard members who have returned from deployments in the last two years and have school-aged children.
Half will receive existing support services on reintegration and parenting after deployment. The other half will take part in a 14-week parent-training program called ADAPT (or After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools). It was created for divorced parents or widows but has been adapted to help Guard members returning from dangerous deployments.
Interviews over two years with the families will, researchers hope, determine if the training helped, said Abi Gewirtz, the lead researcher in the U's department of family social science.
The study will also explore when and for whom ADAPT is effective -- comparing, for example, Guard members by the lengths of their deployment, the number of traumatic incidents they experienced and how long they've been home.
"If you've been deployed for a year, the period of adjustment is at least that long," Gewirtz said. "Two years out? Three years out? We don't know."
Existing research shows that the return home can be particularly challenging for Guard members, who are thrust back into civilian lives, neighborhoods and jobs. Simply driving in 35W traffic, or on a street lined with trash bins, can be stressful for troops who were hard-wired in Iraq and Afghanistan to scan for snipers or roadside bombs.
Spouses or children might not understand why returning Guard members are so upset or frustrated by everyday tasks, Gewirtz said. "What parents tell us is that can cause a lot of short fuses."
Zimmerman struggled in the return from arid Iraq to a green Minnesota. The resulting headaches forced her to sleep more, which frustrated her children because they were eager to spend time with her.
"The guilt of being the mom and not wanting to disappoint my kids because I had just spent a year away from them -- I had struggles with that," she said.
Zimmerman participated in a test phase of ADAPT and said its exercises on consistent parenting were invaluable -- especially with her husband, Steve, now deploying to Kuwait. It is the fifth deployment between the husband and wife, who is no longer in the Guard.
"For us," she said, "it gave us some consistency so we can go from one parent being at home to the other parent being at home to both being home."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744