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It’s finally here. You’ve been waiting weeks, months or even a year for this night. Your spouse/child/ significant other is finally coming home after deployment. You’ve planned what their first meal will be, what you’re going to wear, how you’re going to decorate the house. You’ve spent 2x your typical grocery budget making sure the house is stocked with all their favorites from guilty pleasure snacks to scented bubble bath.
But what about the single soldier who won’t have anyone there to meet them off the plane? Who won’t have a witty sign demanding attention? These soldiers will more likely than not be spending their first night back in their dorm-like barracks bedroom. One that they haven’t seen in 3,6 or even 9 months. How can an FRG leader make this first night at home more enjoyable for these soldiers?
I think that the most important thing is to remember that you can’t do everything. Most of us want to. The idea of an 18-year-old coming home after a 9 month deployment to an empty dorm room breaks my heart. I’ve always wanted to go above and beyond for them, but it just simply isn’t always within our power to do so.
Food. Everyone loves and needs FOOD!!
So what should you do? I’ve always tried to ear mark some FRG funds for food. Typically I set out a few pizzas (depending on the size of the deployment, having each company FRG provide for their own) during the Redeployment Ceremony for family members that wait around for extended periods of time. I then take pizzas and soda/Gatorade to the barracks on each floor. I make sure my husband (aka the commander) knows where the pizzas are and can explain to the guys during his release brief that there’s food for them available near their rooms. This saves them the hassle of going out to get food/ ordering food/ saves them a few bucks.
Stock Up! No One Wants to Go to Wal-Mart at 4am!
One thing that’s common across the board is the trip to Wal-Mart. Inevitably, these soldiers will get back to their rooms and realize they don’t have any shaving cream, no drinks, no soap etc and they can’t get through the next 24 hours without it. If your FRG has the funds I would definitely suggest trying to put together first night care packages. I’ve included toothbrushes, toothpaste, body wash, shave cream, disposable razors, a big bottle of Gatorade, deodorant, and shampoo/conditioner. Think trial sizes… you don’t need to set them up for a month, just keep them from needing to head to the store after an 18 hour flight in a jump seat.
I Swear, You Can Do it on the Cheap
Most FRGs don’t have the funds to accomplish this project on their own. It can be a large financial obligation. Also, FRGs aren’t allowed to solicit donations. So how the heck do you get it done? Fundraisers are obvious options, but not always as lucrative as you would like. I’ve found that the best way to get donations WITHOUT SOLICITING is to network with local business owners and let them know that the unit redeploys soon. Then the ball is in their court.
I’ve gone to the businesses letting them know about the redeployment and asking them to maybe put a sign in their window or on their letter board to welcome the soldiers home. 99% of businesses will happily do this in order to drum up business as a military friendly operation. Many of the owners/managers then go above and beyond and donate items or services to the soldiers.
It Really Works!
By going this route, I once got a local pharmacy to donate toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, and conditioner. For EVERY SOLDIER! All I had to do was put a business card in every bag! A local sandwich shop gave me coupons for a free sub and soda with free delivery (for the evening of redeployment only). That was awesome because I then saved all the money I had set aside for pizzas and used it to stock the goodie bags!
Keep in mind to try LOCAL businesses. Mom and Pops are easier to deal with in every way. You can typically speak to someone with decision-making power pretty quickly and they’re dying to set themselves up for new business while competing with Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and Subway! Also, make sure you do right by these businesses in return. If you’re going to order food for an FRG meeting, go with the guy who donated free food, etc. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll probably make them a patron of the unit for the foreseeable future.
There are Different Ways to Accomplish the Same Goal
Those of you with older barracks have a slightly easier job. The older barracks (I’m looking at you Schofield) have communal bathrooms. In this case, you don’t have to make a full goodie bag for each soldier. You can put a tube of toothpaste at each sink and a bottle of shampoo and conditioner in each shower stall. Yes, they’ll be full-sized instead of the travel sizes, but it’ll still be infinitely cheaper than 100 travel sized bottles of shampoo. Then you can put together a much smaller goodie bag of a toothbrush, a disposable razor a Gatorade, etc.
Don’t forget that there’s always a way to do it more inexpensively. The toothpaste doesn’t need to be Colgate Optic White. You can skip the toothbrushes (they hopefully have one that they deployed with). Bar soap goes way farther than shower gel and loofah. Prioritize what you think is most important and go from there. And you’ll never make everyone happy. I’m sure after piloting a deployed FRG you know that by now… but don’t let it get you down. If someone needs Keratin Complex deep conditioner… they can get that at the store themselves.
What These Troops Need More Than Anything is to Feel Wanted and Welcome
That’s the stressful stuff… now onto the fun stuff! Most FRGs do a poster decorating party or a company area decorating party. Try adding time to do a barracks decorating party! Write the names of each room occupant on construction paper and give them to the kids to decorate. Then you can stick them on the appropriate door in the barracks! Now every soldier has a welcome home poster! Try not to go too crazy, because inevitably someone has to clean it up and they won’t thank you if they’re stuck cleaning up a mess, no matter how good your intentions were.
If You Can, Give Them Some Basic Entertainment
Most barracks have a rec room for the guys to hang out in. Go to redbox (or plug in your fire stick whatever works for you) and have a movie that was in theaters while they were gone. If they were deployed on a major FOB this won’t be that exciting to them, since they probably had access to all the newest movies anyway, so skip it. But the more remote the deployment, the more you can accomplish. Replay of the Super Bowl, Game 7 of the World Series. Big crowd pleasers, even if they do know how it ends.
So if you’re stuck for ideas on what to do for the barracks bound soldier after deployment, just remember this: They’ll essentially want whatever your soldier wants. A hot shower, a non DFAC meal, a good bit of TV and a soft bed. Check off any of those boxes for them so they don’t have to think about it and you’ve done something wonderful!
Just In Case Your Forgot, You’re Doing an Amazing Job
Remember, your job is hard, it’s often thankless, but as long as you’re doing right by the soldiers and families of the FRG, you can’t go wrong.
Have you ever helped an FRG with redeployment? What were some of the things that went over really well? What do you wish had been done differently?