Natalie Sanders is an Army Veteran who gave birth to her first child about a month before her husband was deployed.
Natalie talks about some of the struggles she faced as a new mom who had to go it alone during that time. She was able to lean on the support network on base through Facebook groups and classes as well as nearby family to help her out.
Her number one piece of advice for parents with a deployed spouse is to avoid isolation that comes from staying at home alone with your newborn. Get out and get involved with groups, classes for your child, or any number of other activities so that you don't end up in isolation.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:03 Hi everybody. This is the Drive On Podcast where we talk about issues affecting veterans after they get out of the military. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio, and now let's get on with the show.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:14 Hey everyone, thanks for tuning into the Drive On Podcast. Now, before we get started, I wanted to take a minute to ask a quick favor from the listeners. The point of the podcast is to help veterans through sharing stories like the one we're about to hear but it doesn't really help if no one hears the story. So, if you wouldn't mind, hit pause for a second and head on over to DriveOnPodcast.com/subscribe where you can find links to subscribe and review the show on your favorite podcast app. And if you wouldn't mind taking a second to share the podcast on social media or even directly to a friend who you think might benefit by listening to the podcast, I'd really appreciate it. Okay, so now back to the show. Today my guest is Natalie Sanders. Now Natalie is an Army Veteran, a mother and a wife to a soldier.
Scott DeLuzio: 01:00 She's here to talk about her experience on deployment to Afghanistan and how it compares to being a stay-at-home parent with a newborn at a new duty station while her husband was deployed. This is a rather interesting topic to me personally because my wife and I probably share somewhat similar experiences, in that I was deployed just a few weeks after our first son was born. It'll be interesting to hear another mother's perspective on a deployment with a newborn. Without any further delay, Natalie, welcome to the show! Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Natalie Sanders: 01:33 Okay. My name is Natalie and I am from Irving, Texas, which is a large suburb of Dallas and I served in the Army for eight years and I've been out now for a little over five years. I'm still in the military community because my husband is active duty and we have two boys. And so, right now, I am a stay-at-home mom.
Scott DeLuzio: 02:00 Okay. Great. And that's no small job to have either being a stay-at-home mom. You mentioned to me earlier through emails back and forth that you wanted to share some of your experience on your deployment to Afghanistan. So why don't we start there?
Natalie Sanders: 02:20 Okay. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and my husband had actually just come back from his deployment to Iraq; so, they were kind of back to back, which was a challenge. I deployed as a nurse with the 31st Cash and we were in several different locations. I ended up spending the majority of my time at Camp Dwyer, which is a Marine camp. We had a tent hospital where we provided care to mostly Marines, some civilian contractors, we had translators and it ended up as kind of a humanitarian mission as well because we helped a lot of the locals that would come in after IED blasts and all sorts of things. They were brought in to where we were for treatment.
Scott DeLuzio: 03:22 I actually was in Afghanistan in 2010 as well, which is just coincidence that we happened to be deployed to the same country at around the same time. That experience with helping the civilians and helping the military and the civilian contractors and all that kind of stuff, I can't imagine it was an easy experience to handle any of that. I would imagine it probably helped you to some extent as a parent later on in life in terms of dealing with the stresses of being a parent, especially in the circumstances that you were going through at the time. How do those experiences that you had in Afghanistan compare to being a stay-at-home mom with a newborn child? I imagine it would be drastically different in some respects but sometimes raising a child can feel like you're in a war zone almost, you know? How did those two experiences compare?
Natalie Sanders: 04:42 It may sound strange but I actually think that being a stay-at-home parent was harder than deployment because when you're in the army, you’re basically told everything that you have to do. But then when you become a parent, you don't have a handbook. I mean, you can buy and read books but it's not the same as actually experiencing it. I actually felt like my time in the military, even on deployment, was easier than being a stay-at-home parent. And especially, coupled with the fact that my husband was only there for maybe the first month before he left. It can be very isolating having a newborn at home and not only that but then not having the support of your partner there with you. Also, knowing that he's missing out on some milestones. Just things like that. Organizing your new schedule around vaccines, doctor's appointments, things like that.
Scott DeLuzio: 05:55 Absolutely and there's a lot things like that to a person who's never had a child before that you just don't think about things like the vaccines and the doctor's appointments and the basic stuff like how to change a diaper. Prior to having a kid, I never changed a diaper and it was eye opening for me as well. What were some of the things that you did? Did you have any sort of support network? Not necessarily a support network per se, but a group of people maybe that you could see on a regular basis. I know a lot of times there were little classes at libraries or rec centers where you can take your kid and whether it's playing music or whatever. You can go there and it's a social experience for the child but it also serves as a social experience for the parents, as well. Were there any things like that around where you were or anything like that?
Natalie Sanders: 07:02 Yes, so we were at Fort Drum at the time and there were several events that you could go to. They had a story time at the library that was on post and we would go to different paint classes. There were definitely opportunities to be out on about, so that you wouldn't just have to stay home and you could be with other moms. There was a group that met at our community center once a month. We would try to make it a point to go to that.
Scott DeLuzio: 07:36 I would imagine and I don't know this for sure, but I would imagine that most military bases around would probably have something similar to that where they have some sort of groups for parents to go with their kids. Probably for a good reason with spouses being deployed all the time, it's hard to just have them sitting there having a parent sitting there and not really having any community or activities going on for them. I would imagine that that's probably something that other parents could probably look for if they're in that similar situation, feeling isolated where they can look for that type of thing.
Natalie Sanders: 08:23 Yes.
Scott DeLuzio: 08:26 Now, from my own personal experience, it was much different speaking to my wife while I was deployed as described in Episode 9 of this show. If anyone is interested in hearing that side of the story, you can go back to Episode 9 where I interviewed my wife and we discussed a bit about our relationship and so I'm not going to go too much into that here. What was your relationship like with your husband while he was deployed and you had the newborn at home? What was that like in terms of communication and other things like that?
Natalie Sanders: 09:01 We just tried to do video chat as much as we could so that he could talk to our baby. It was always challenging having that time difference because he was ahead of us in time. We would have to schedule it around whatever his work schedule was. Sometimes I'd end up staying up late so that I could talk to him or whatever the case was. We just tried to communicate as best we could and thankfully the video chat would usually work on both ends. Sometimes it would be grainy but when we could make the connections, we would.
Scott DeLuzio: 09:42 I know before I was deployed, and I should say, I had no idea where we were going to be in the country, what technology we'd have available to us or anything like that. I know, I sat down and one afternoon and I recorded myself reading a few children's books, like bedtime story kind of things. I just had a video camera and recorded it and then my wife was able to play those for our son while I was gone because we didn't know if I'd even have access to any kind of video chat or anything like that. And where we were video chatting was kind of remote, to some extent. And we didn't really have too many computers there that were capable of the video chat too easily.
Scott DeLuzio: 10:35 So, it was kind of a good thing that I did something like that. My cell phone at the time, so again, this is back in 2010, I had a Blackberry cell phone, which makes me feel old at this point saying that. On the blackberries, there was a blackberry messenger which was free to text back and forth between two blackberries and my wife and I both had it. And even though I was halfway across the world, we still were able to text each other for free through that. And it just made the communication a little bit more on demand although it wasn't quite as good as a phone call or a video chat or whatever but we still were able to just send quick little messages to each other. I know that that helped us tremendously, being able to just send some little quick notes, just checking in, just want to let you know I'm doing okay and that kind of thing. And that was helpful. It is interesting to hear how your relationship was too.
Natalie Sanders: 11:42 Yeah. So one of the things that actually made me decide that I wanted to get out of the military whenever we decided that we wanted to have kids was the fact that when I was deployed and I would be in the tent with the other women that were in my tent and they would be trying to video chat with their kids or talk to them and they would lose the connection. And at that point I just decided I don't want to do that. It was so hard on them emotionally. So, I just decided my military career is going to end when we have a family and my husband can stay in if he wants to but I know that that's not what I want for our future.
Scott DeLuzio: 12:30 I think that's probably important for you to have seen firsthand how the other women in your tent there were affected by being deployed and being away from their children for such long periods of time and then being able to make that decision with that kind of evidence there supporting your decision. It is probably a lot easier to make that decision than it would be if you hadn't seen that.
Scott DeLuzio: 13:06 What other types of things did you guys do? I know you said video chatting. Was there any way for you guys to help each other out with things? I know, like being a new parent, like you said before, you're figuring things out as you go. There's no handbook that you get to figure out what to do with kids. Typically, when you have a spouse at home, you can help each other out to try to figure out how to navigate being a new parent. Were you able to rely on that type of communication while your husband was deployed or was that something that you had to figure out on your own?
Natalie Sanders: 13:52 I pretty much just had to figure out everything about being a new parent on my own. I just did. I had a Facebook group that I was in with all of our babies were due in March and so we would ask each other a lot of questions. So, I had that kind of social network online that we all had babies the same age. So, we would keep in communication and then my mom was able to visit and come help me. So that helped a lot because it gave me a little bit of time away, some time to rest. And that way it wasn't just me completely on my own taking care of the baby.
Scott DeLuzio: 14:37 I'm relating this to my own experience, my own family's experience, I should say I know my wife would spend a lot of time at her parents' house. Sometimes she'd even stay at her parents' house while I was deployed. For her it was good to have another set of hands that could help with the baby. So, she could catch up on some sleep because as any new parent knows, you don't really sleep a lot when the baby comes.
Natalie Sanders: Yes, definitely not.
Scott DeLuzio: That's a universal thing. I think you just have to accept you're not going to sleep. I probably got more sleep on deployment than I did when I was home with the baby and my wife was also at her parents' house, I should say, to have another adult to talk to; so, it's not just her and this little baby who can't communicate other than crying.
Scott DeLuzio: 15:43 So, she was able to have somebody to talk to. And I think that was important for her own sanity to have that available. It looks like you had something similar in terms of having your mother help out and also through the groups that you were in that you're able to ask questions to other parents about basically being a parent and what to do in certain circumstances and things like that. Let's circle back a little bit to your deployment because I think we touched on it a little bit but I feel like there might maybe be a little bit more to do that might be interesting in terms of what your job was there and what you might've done over there.
Scott DeLuzio: 16:43 So, if you don't mind circling back to that a little bit; so you helped, obviously the military with their injuries, local civilians who might've been injured in IEDs and things like that and civilian contractors. What was that experience like for you? Had you ever been in a “real world” like more real-world experience where there were those traumas? I know you can do all sorts of training to learn about all of that stuff but was that your first experience of actually seeing the blood and gore, if you will, from actual real-life experiences or do you have other experiences from that prior to your deployment?
Natalie Sanders: I really hadn't been exposed to
Natalie Sanders: 17:50 the things that we saw over there. I don't really think that there's anything that can prepare you for that. I had worked in the hospital at my first duty station, which it was short; it was less than a year that I was there and I worked with heart patients. And then as soon as I got to my next duty station, which was Fort Bliss, then we basically started preparing to deploy. But we were mostly concerned with preparing our equipment, setting up tents, making sure we had all the medical supplies, things like that. Not really doing a lot of practice, which I don't think you can really practice. They try to give you patients with the fake injuries so that you can treat them and kind of see how the hospital operates in that type of environment. But it's not at all like what it is like when you're actually there.
Natalie Sanders: 18:47 I also had the opportunity to work with our British comrades also in Afghanistan and I worked in the operating room with them. So, when I did that, we would see people basically straight from the battlefield come in, get fixed up as best as those surgeons could do and then they would transfer them out to where they could get higher level of care. That was definitely something different. We'd see amputations, pretty severe injuries and then some run of the mill things too, like appendectomy some soldier has appendicitis, they just fix that so they can feel better. We definitely saw things that you would probably not see even in a regular trauma unit in the United States.
Scott DeLuzio: 19:57 And especially not in the volume or the concentration of time that you were there. So, you might be seeing this on a much more frequent basis than you would anywhere else.
Natalie Sanders: 20:13 Right. We didn't have a lot of days off. It was just like you'd pretty much work and you'd get a shift off, if they could but you'd still be on call.
Scott DeLuzio: 20:25 So, I know a lot of times when people are thrown into a situation like that, they don't really know what to do or when they don't know what to expect from that type of situation, seeing all of that bad stuff that you saw, they may not know how to cope with that either. What were some of the ways that you found that worked for you in terms of coping to get through the next day to come back and do it all over again. After seeing that day after day, what were some of the things that you might have done to help you cope and get through all of that?
Natalie Sanders: 21:16 We had an NWR tent where you could go get cooled off, have a snack, you could watch a movie. I remember watching all of the Big Bang Theory episodes on our time off. Communicating with family at home whenever you could, whenever you can get through to make a phone call. And really, I think we had a pretty good support system just with the rest of the people that I worked with, the soldiers were really great. We had an awesome chaplain that was always there for us. You know, you could walk into where he stayed anytime and talk to him about what was going on.
Scott DeLuzio: 22:08 Well, that's good. I know a lot of people who go to war and they experience some of these traumas, whether they're on the battlefield and experiencing them as they're happening or even as a medical professional who witnesses them a short time after they happened. It's still a very traumatic experience to observe that. Even trauma surgeons in the United States who I've spoken to before, not on this podcast necessarily, but just to people who have worked in hospitals and dealt with nasty car crashes or gunshots and other things like that where it's hard to wrap your head around this is a person's life and their life is now in my hands and how do I justify, “am I the right person to even be the person here to do all of this kind of stuff?”
Scott DeLuzio: 23:20 To some of those people, it's very hard to do that type of stuff. But it's good, I think that there were those releases there in terms of like the MWR and other soldiers nearby and the chaplain to speak to. I think it's important that people recognize that those opportunities are there for them. So, should they feel like they are overwhelmed with that type of stress that they can rely on that type of stuff to help them out. And talking to people too, I mean, maybe the other soldiers aren't the right people to talk to, but I'm sure the chaplain is a good place to start. If the chaplain is not qualified to handle whatever it is that you need to talk about, I'm sure there's other steps that can be taken to escalate that if need be.
Natalie Sanders: 24:21 Yes. And a lot of times we didn't get closure as far as we would have our patient and then we would transfer them out. You know, sometimes I would actually go on the ambulance with them from the hospital to the airplane and they'd go with the Air Force nurses. And so, we didn't know what happened to them, which can be hard,
Scott DeLuzio: 24:43 Right? Yeah. That could be not really knowing after they take off and they go either they make it to Germany or the United States or wherever they ended up, not knowing what happened to that person is hard too. I know just from the work that I do, on a normal basis, I like to see things through to completion. I want to be able to finish a job and if I can't finish a job, I at least want to know how it turned out in the end. So, that probably is a little bit difficult, as well. Now you said you have two boys now. So, the first child was born while your husband was deployed and the second child, was he born during a deployment? Were there any other deployments? I'm trying to ask were there any other deployments going on that that child was involved in or was it just the one?
Natalie Sanders: 25:53 Just the one, our first child was when my husband deployed about a month after he was born and then our second one, there a little bit over two years apart. So, he was home for that one. And the only thing that he's had, it's just he does TDY pretty frequently but it's not as hard and it is good that he got to see what it was like since he missed out on a lot, even though it's a different kid, but he didn't have to miss everything like he did with the first one.
Scott DeLuzio: 26:28 So, that's almost an identical experience to what we had because our first two kids are about two years apart, two and a half years or so apart and so gosh, that's actually very interesting, especially with the timeline because, it just seems to fit pretty close there. I know when I first got back from Afghanistan, my wife just continued being mom, doing all the mom things. She didn't just say, okay, he's home. He can handle the kid now and just kind of walk away and kind of wash her hands of it because she has dealt with this for the better part of a year and she just wanted or needed a break or whatever. So, she continued being mom. And along the way, she kind of slowly was teaching me the things that she learned over that year, which to me was extremely helpful
Scott DeLuzio: 27:30 especially under the circumstances of when I came back home, my brother was killed in Afghanistan at the same time that I was there. And so, I was going through quite a bit of issues with that. And so, learning to be a dad on top of all of that was extremely difficult for me. So, my wife was able to help me out with slowly getting me back into being a dad. And then by the time our second child was born I was ready to jump in from day one of when she was born to just be dad and just be there and be present with her and everything like that. What was your experience like when your husband came back from a deployment with your first child in terms of getting him involved in being dad?
Natalie Sanders: 28:37 I'm sorry to hear about your brother, by the way. So, when my husband came back, I think he probably didn't really know what to expect and it was kind of like you said, trying to teach him how to do things because it's like you as a mom and as a temporary single mom, you do everything your way. And so, then when he would help, it's hard to say, “Oh, you're not doing it right.” You know because we tend to be a little bit control freaks about our kids and picking out their clothes, changing diapers, simple things. But it's like, “Oh, you don't know what you're doing.” So just kind of gradually adjusting to that. I was letting him do more and actually feeling comfortable leaving the house with him by himself. Even though you're the dad, it's like, okay, can you handle this?
Scott DeLuzio: 29:39 Exactly. Yeah. And I think my wife had a very similar experience where she has her routines and she does things a certain way and she does them well that certain way; but if one little thing comes in and disturbs that routine, it throws off the whole process. And so, I was that one little thing that would step in every now and again thinking that I was being helpful, but I really was in a way of kind of throwing off the whole process. So, it's actually refreshing to know that I was not the only one who was having to play catch up and learn how to be a dad that way. So, it looks like we're actually kind of coming up on time on this episode but I usually like to ask one final question before we wrap things up about any advice that you would've liked to have received before joining the military.
Scott DeLuzio: 30:39 But I'd like to modify this a bit for you and this particular episode. So the final question that I'd like to ask is, “is there any advice that you would give to a new mom who's going through a similar situation where her husband's deployed and she's at home? Perhaps she is by herself with a newborn and maybe not necessarily a new mom, it could be a new dad where the mom is deploying a short time after having a child or whatever, a new parent, let's just say whose spouse than being deployed, is there any advice that you would give to them?”
Natalie Sanders: 31:24 I would say just don't stay at home and just be isolated, even though it can be very difficult to get out of the house sometimes with all the things you have to bring, diapers, extra clothes, et cetera. There's a lot of programs. There's Army community service, some posts like here we have a new parent support program. There are classes you can go to, your chaplain of your partners unit. There are a lot of resources and I would just say it's too easy to just stay home and be isolated but don't do that because it's not good for your mental health. It's better to be around people that are going through the same thing, if you can.
Scott DeLuzio: 32:14 Absolutely. I definitely think that's a great piece of advice. Definitely being around other people, especially during a difficult situation where you might be concerned about your spouse who's deployed, for their safety and then dealing with all the things, trying to figure out how to be a parent or even if you've had a child before, figuring out how to be a parent on your own is a difficult thing. And so, having other people who are going through that as well around you, can only help the situation. I think that was great advice that you have for all of that. So, Natalie, thank you very much for being on the show and sharing your information with us and about your deployment, about being a stay-at-home mom with a deployed spouse. Really, really great information! I think it can definitely help other people who might be going through a similar situation. So, thank you.
Natalie Sanders: Thank you.
Scott DeLuzio: 33:28 Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website, DriveOnPodcast.com we're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @DriveOnPodcast.