The Arizona Republic
By SCOTT CRAVEN
The Arizona Republic
A year ago, Robin Kempton lived the same kind of life as his friends and neighbors, working hard all week at his job before coming home each night to a family who needed him. On weekends, he mowed the lawn and washed the car.
That was before war took him to Afghanistan. Now everything’s different.
The 40-year-old helicopter mechanic, an E-4 specialist who returned in May, is a member of the Arizona National Guard who has come home after serving in the war on terror.
He is among the many men and women returning who are facing adjustments that can take weeks or months, at times exacerbated by the changes that have occurred while they were gone.
“Transition is difficult even in the best of situations,” says Maj. Robert Ditchey, spokesman for the Arizona Army National Guard. “Those in the regular military come back to their base, but those in the Guard must transition back to families, the community and their jobs. They have to pick up where they left off, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”
Kempton’s adjustment started the second he saw Becky, his wife of 15 years, among the hundreds of friends and family members gathered to welcome the soldiers.
Her long hair was gone, replaced by a shoulder-length cut. He hardly recognized her.
Then, after a baseball game and dinner out, Kempton accompanied his wife and their 15-year-old son, Tyler, to a home he had never seen.
It was a perfectly nice house, but it didn’t feel like home.
“It looked great, but I didn’t know where anything was,” he says.
Little things can lead to the biggest problems, says Ken Benckwitz, team leader at the Phoenix Veterans Center, which offers counseling to former soldiers.
Benckwitz says soldiers are coming home to spouses who have learned to fend for themselves. Men and women who others counted on for survival just a month before coming home find their roles in the family diminished, with other family members doing chores they once performed.
This change in the family affects men more acutely, Benckwitz says:
“They come home and realize their wives have done fine without them. The kids are OK, the budget is in good shape and all the household things are taken care of. … Little things make him say, ‘I’m not wanted here anymore.’”
War taught Kempton to be alert to suspicious people and situations.
That vigilance remains. Kempton sits with his back to the wall in restaurants. He avoids large crowds.
His wife has noticed other small changes: The way Kempton was constantly picking up after everyone, because, in camp, he had to know where everything was at all times. The way he can’t relax, going outside to wash his car at 9 o’clock at night, because at camp there was always something to do. He still wakes at 4 a.m., even though he may not have gone to bed until 11 the night before, his sleep interrupted by unfamiliar noises.
But Becky Kempton has changed, too. She is more independent, doing chores her husband used to do. She has her own way of doing things. So as he adjusts to civilian life, she must adjust to him.
“He’s always on the go, and it can tire me out sometimes,” she says “There are times when I need him out of my hair, so I’ll go take a nap and tell him to go do whatever makes him happy.”
Dr. Dennis Grant, a clinical director at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix, says marriages often suffer most after combat situations.
“The impact on wives and children can be significant,” he says. “A lot of marriages broke up after Korea and Vietnam. We’re trying to place emphasis on the family aspect as these soldiers come home.”
The adjustment can take weeks or months, and families must realize that there is work ahead once the joyous reunion is over.
Good things also have come from the time apart. Kempton is closer than ever to Tyler, who suffered during his father’s absence, earning D’s and F’s at school rather than his usual A’s and B’s.
Now the teen goes to his father whenever he has a problem, sharing whatever’s on his mind.
Becky hopes that, in time, Tyler will forgive the military.
Ultimately, Kempton says, Afghanistan and his service there have strengthened his marriage. He and his wife were already close when duty called, but they appreciate each other even more now.
“It takes something like this to realize that possessions mean nothing,” Becky says. “It’s all about family.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Gannett News Service
CUTLINE: The Kemptons – Becky (left) and Robin, a member of the Arizona National Guard – readjust to family life since Robin’s return to Goodyear from military duty in Afghanistan.