Minn. Guard veterans get help in return to family life

Dinner time
Kevin and Emily Ross, with their children, Elena, 9, Lucy, 6, and Isaac, 2, eat dinner at their home in Mahtomedi, Minn., on April 25, 2012. Kevin Ross, who has been with the Minnesota National Guard since 1999, said the ADAPT parenting program has helped he and his family communicate more effectively.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In 2009 when Kevin Ross left for Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard, he and his wife, Emily, had two children.

When he returned they had three. The children had grown so much Ross hardly recognized one of his daughters.

"The night I got home I remember we are standing in that final formation in the armory," he says, "and I looked out and I saw a little girl sitting on the floor crying. As I got closer I hugged my wife and realized that that was my child."

Kevin, 31, a member of the Willmar-based 682nd Engineer Battalion, was away from home for about 18 months.

For Emily, 32, holding down the homefront alone and single parenting their two daughters and son (Elena, 9, Lucy, 6, and Isaac, two-and-a-half) was difficult.

It was an even bigger adjustment when he got back.

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Soldier reintegration
Kevin Ross, 31, and his children Elena, 9, and Isaac, 2, spend time together at their home in Mahtomedi, Minn., on April 25, 2012. Ross, who served overseas with the Minnesota National Guard, and his family are participating in the ADAPT parenting program, a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and the National Guard that helps families with reintegration and parenting skills.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"And his responsibilities were all centered around him," she says, "and then coming back to a household of five people and a wife who's been dealing with it alone all this time and is ready for a break, I think it took some time for him to readjust to even what his responsibilities in the family were."

Kevin says it took months before things felt normal. "With a deployment it kind of seems to reset the clock, so you go back and you have to relearn how to communicate with each other," he says.

The Rosses are one of more than 120 recently deployed military families participating in a groundbreaking University of Minnesota study that aims to make this transition easier.

It's called ADAPT (After Deployment, Adaptive Parenting Tools).

ADAPT researchers observe parents and their children to try and understand deployment stress. At the same time, researchers are testing parenting techniques on the families.

Washing hands
Emily Ross helps her son, Isaac, 2, wash his hands at their home in Mahtomedi, Minn., on April 25, 2012. Emily runs a day care business out of their home after working as a nurse for about a decade.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Lead investigator Abi Gewirtz says the goal is to create special parenting tools for military families.

"What we know about families under stress, whether it's stress due to deployment or stress due to any other family transition, is that when families are stressed it's parenting that is hit," Gewirtz says.

And that affects children.

To find out how, Gewirtz and a team from the U and the Minneapolis VA developed a special program for military families with children age 5 to 12. They assign each family to one of two groups: In one they receive written parenting resources. In the other they participate in 14-week parenting workshops.

Gewirtz says the program teaches parents to communicate effectively with their children and reduce conflict.

"Instead of doing what we what we call a drive-by direction -- you know, when you walk past the child and say, 'OK, time to pick up your stuff now,' and go to the other room and then the child is like, 'Huh?' Or a long-distance direction, 'Honey, can you come down now, please!' -- you know, these are more convenient for us but they don't serve us well."

ADAPT recommends that parents give short, simple, face-to-face directions and that they use praise and incentives to encourage good behavior. While all families could use the techniques ADAPT teaches, there is new and growing recognition among military leaders that supporting military families makes stronger soldiers.

"You know they train the soldiers; you might as well train the families along with them."

At home in Mahtomedi, Kevin Ross stands next to his son and asks him to help set the table as his wife, Emily, makes dinner.

While Isaac is too young for the program, the Rosses say the ADAPT techniques have made a big difference with all their children.

Before the study, Ross says he would have handled things differently.

"I probably would have asked him once or twice and gotten frustrated and done it myself." Ross says learning to speak to his children on their level is very different from what he learned in the military. There, soldiers are expected to follow orders without discussion or complaint.

The Rosses agree ADAPT isn't a magic bullet. The children do not follow directions every time. But they have responded positively to the new techniques.

Emily Ross says she would like to see ADAPT expanded and shared with military families across the United States.

Co-parenting after deployment
Kevin Ross listens as his wife, Emily, talks with their children at their home in Mahtomedi, Minn., on April 25, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"And it's been wonderful for our family, and we know it would be wonderful for other families as well," she says. "It should almost be a requirement for families going through this that they go through training like this. You know they train the soldiers; you might as well train the families along with them."

Over the next five years ADAPT researchers will recruit 400 Minnesota military families and follow them. The program is also expanding outside of the metro area, St. Cloud and Mankato to serve more recently returned soldiers outstate.