For soldiers, coming home can be as hard as leaving

The strain on military families does not end when the troops return from Iraq or Afghanistan.

The total number of American troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq has finally started to come down. But from on-base counseling offices to the White House, the realization is growing that the strain on military families does not end when the warriors come home. Problems as severe as post-traumatic stress disorder and as mundane as who pays the bills can make reintegration after the deployment as difficult as the separation during it.

Going off to war is hard. All too often, so is coming home.

Matthew McCollum's brother, a marine, died in Afghanistan. When Matthew, an Army major, later deployed to the Afghan war, his wife, Angel, held herself and their two sons together during the year apart. "I kept saying, 'Your Uncle Dan is your Daddy's angel; he'll watch over him, I promise,' " she told National Journal. She even managed to move the family from one base to another in anticipation of her husband's transfer to a new unit. Finally, in the first days after Matthew's return to the United States, while he was still at his old base dealing with post-deployment paperwork, the dam broke.

"I called him one evening and it was, like, 9:30 to 10:00 at night, [and] he didn't answer, and I immediately got panicked," Angel said. "I kept on calling and calling.... By 11:30, I was ready to call the front desk to have them key into his room to make sure he wasn't dead." When Matthew finally got in and called his wife, he chided her for overreacting. Angel's response could serve as a credo for those whose war is on the home front:

"Did you pray for me every single night that you were gone that somebody wouldn't shoot me or blow me up or kill me or drag my body through the streets?... Did you pray for me every night that I wouldn't have a heart attack from the stress?" she asked her husband. "Matt, I have been holding your vigil.... Until you've rocked your sons to sleep and assured them as they were crying that Daddy would be OK and things were going to be all right, you have no right to tell me I've overreacted.

"And that's the only argument we had," Angel finished with a laugh.

The McCollums talked it through and stayed together -- and he stayed in the Army. But not every military family makes it.

In the most recent issue of National Journal, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. looks at the challenge of coming home after war.

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