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Ask the Doc: How Do I Fight the Long Deployment Blues?

Image of Military personnel looking at a computer. Navy Operations Specialist 3rd Class Gabriel Franco stands the surface warfare supervisor watch aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry, August 25 in the Philippine Sea. Barry is currently deployed in support of U.S. 7th Fleet (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Stack)

Dear Doc: I've just returned from an unusually long deployment with my ship due to COVID. To make matters worse, most of our originally scheduled port visits were either cancelled or strictly for re-supplying (in other words, no "real" liberty). I'm normally an extremely social person, but with each passing day, I found myself becoming more and more shut-in and irritable. I was short with my friends and had little to no contact with family back home, who I would normally make it a point to talk to via e-mail or Facebook at least once a week. Nobody told me there were any problems with the work I was doing, but I'm worried that my mental sharpness and focus on the mission was impacted. I, personally, definitely didn't feel like I was doing my best work.

I'm not an overly religious person and I know being "spiritual" or "spiritually fit" doesn't necessarily mean keeping yourself religiously engaged. But what can I do to make sure this doesn't happen the next time I go out to sea (faith-based options or otherwise)?

--Long Deployment Blues

Illustration of a male face with the words "Ask the Doc"

Dear LDB: Deployments can be hard, especially with added stressors like knowing there's a virus out there that is preventing an otherwise enjoyable experience from being any fun at all. I understand that sitting pierside likely wasn't your idea of "Joining the Navy and seeing the world."

I talked to a fellow sailor, Navy Chaplain Lt. Chad Haan at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia, and here's what he shared with me about staying mentally sharp and connected during deployment:


Long Deployment Blues, I've definitely been on deployments like you're describing. Here are a few ideas and things to keep in mind:

The Upward Spiral

Most of us service members have heard of the downward spiral: that cyclone of cascading bad decisions and bad behavior. Lesser known, however, is the upward spiral, which consists of positive thinking, positive talk, and positive actions. What we think about, we talk about. What we talk about is what we intend to do (though we might not always follow through). "Just Do It" has been a certain sports brand's slogan for 33 years because if you "Just Do It," the positive thoughts and talk will follow. The upward spiral takes more effort initially but carries a lot of energy once you get going.

Up Your "Me Time" Game:

If you want to get better at any sport, you have to play and practice with people who are better than you. The same principle is true for your "me time" game, which can be divided into several aspects of physical and mental fitness.

1. Physical Health "Me Time": Social comradery usually plays a big part in our motivation to work out. Find a few people who are committed regulars in the gym and work out with them. Spend time with them outside the gym and get a schedule going. While you are building up your body and enjoying all the health benefits that go along with that, you will also be building relationships which are just as important.

2. Spiritual Health "Me Time": Talk to your ship's chaplain to find out if there is a like-minded group of religious or spiritual people that you can plug in with. It is the chaplain's job to support your freedom of religion and also support the spiritual readiness of non-religious personnel. I, personally, encourage you to explore your faith. Studies have shown a direct correlation between spiritual involvement and job performance as well as job satisfaction.

3. Emotional Health "Me Time": Talking works! The therapeutic value of talking and being heard is very high and this is another area where your chaplain is probably a good option. Although caring is our job, it does not have to be a chaplain. If you're on an aircraft carrier you should have a Deployed Resiliency Counselor, psych. doc., and chaplains. These are the folks on the ship who can give you the best counsel.

4. Professional "Me Time": Choose a mentor or cultivate a friendship with someone that has significantly more years of life experience, not just years of military experience. Don't divorce your career goals from your personal goals but also don't accept the easiest possible mentor as a guide – such as someone who is only a few years ahead of you in your rating pipeline.

Like drafting in racing, the lead cars cut the wind resistance and help pull the slower car at the back of the group. Don't think of "me time" as being selfish. You have to take care of your personal health in order to do your job well and take care of your shipmates.

Deployed Communications

While there is a lot that could be said about communicating with our loved ones while deployed, in my experience, families have unrealistic expectations about communications.

First, not that much changes aboard a ship on a day-to-day basis: "Dear Loved One, It's Tuesday (again). I ate tacos (again). Plus, there are many things you may not be able to tell your family anyway depending on your line of work. If you email or talk too often, you may quickly run out of things to say, not look forward to talking or writing, and it may seem like communication has become a chore. Set these expectations before you deploy and be clear about when and if these expectations should change during deployment.

Second, plan to read the same books or see the same movies from time to time so that you have some shared experiences you can talk about instead of talking about all the "normal" things of life. Make a plan that includes things you can do together even when you are physically apart.

These suggestions should have you well on your way to a better deployment the next go-round. Remember, it's like everything else in life: You will get out of it what you put into it. If you put some intentional effort into having a good deployment, you probably will.


LDB, I don't think I could have said it better myself! That's exactly why we have experts like Chaplain Haan on hand to answer questions from people like you out there in the fleet and field.

Hopefully, you can put the Lt.'s advice to good use the next time you head out on deployment. In the meantime, recharge your batteries and enjoy your time at home. You deserve it. Thank you for all that you do for the Navy and your country.

And as always, now and especially the next time you deploy…take care of yourself out there!

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