When the first Soldiers and Marines boarded the planes for Afghanistan in October 2001, no one was standing at the door asking them how they were doing. No one asked their families, either. Research on the well-being of service members and families affected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was slow to appear. And, many military families had already experienced a deployment or two before researchers were able to begin their studies of family separations, mental health, the effects of service member’s injuries on family relationships, child well-being, and multiple deployments and returns.
I’m proud that the National Military Family Association was the first to launch a large-scale study of military children and deployment as we commissioned RAND to follow 1,500 children and their at-home caregivers for a year. RAND reported in our Views from the Homefront study, released in 2011, that most military children and their families were handling deployment stresses well. But, researchers found military children had more anxiety symptoms than civilian kids. Military families were more at risk the longer the service member was deployed. Children had a harder time if their at-home parent was having problems dealing with deployment or if there was poor family communication in the home.
Other research is now being released and more is underway that is adding to our understanding of how the past decade of multiple deployments is affecting families. It’s both heartening and disappointing that this research is validating some of the conclusions of our study.
Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to understand and how our Association can use the latest research on military families presented at two recent conferences: a symposium on National Guard and Reserve families held in April at the University of Michigan and the International Research Symposium for Military Families held last week by Purdue University’s Military Family Research Institute.
What are researchers reporting they’ve learned about military families? They find that most service members and families remain resilient, but:
- More months of deployment are associated with more family challenges, more mental health services and medication use by military spouses and children, and more academic issues for children.
- Spousal support has a strong impact on the ability of ill/injured service members to work towards getting better, but spouses need accurate information about illness, warning signs, and strategies for communicating concerns to health care providers.
- Female service members and veterans identify several barriers to accessing support services, including gaps in information about the issues they face and a perceived lack of understanding of gender differences, especially concerning parenting.
- Among deployed service members, family stress appears to be primarily related to service members’ actual or perceived inability to be a source of support for family members at home.
Getting more information about what’s happening to military families affected by war is important for many reasons. It can help guide the creation of better programs, policies, and laws. It can pose questions about what else we need to know about military families to support them. In this era of tight budgets, knowing what service members and families need must be the first step in creating new programs and deciding which existing programs need to be cut.
A key part of the discussion at these recent research conferences focused on what else we need to know. We need to know more about the experiences and needs of female service members and veterans—and their children. We need to know more about the long term effects of the past decade of war on military children, not just while their parent is on active duty, but after the service member becomes a veteran. How are military families making the transition to veteran status? What help did they receive from the Department of Defense? What do they need after leaving the military and settling into their new civilian community? What kind of support are families seeking in their communities and is it helping? What are the long term effects of a service member’s serious injury on the family, including the parents and siblings of single service members? What new issues will emerge for families as they face new military missions?
What questions do you wish researchers would ask about the military family experience? What do your think our Nation needs to know about service members, veterans, and their families in order to support them in the future? Tell us!