Military Families Opinions Before, During and After Deployment

News from the recent RAND Deployment Life Study

What happens to military families when a soldier deploys?

Studies have shown that military deployments are associated with poorer mental health, behavioral problems in children, a higher risk of divorce, and a higher incidence of suicide in military families. Not surprisingly, military members and their spouses consistently cite deployments as the most stressful aspect of military life.

The Deployment Life Study (DLS)-the first longitudinal study of its kind-was designed to assess the impact of deployment on military families and to help the Department of Defense, policymakers, and service providers better prepare these families for deployment. The DLS survey interviewed more than 2,700 married military families from all branches (Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps) and all components (active, reserve, and guard) of the armed forces.

Up to three family members-the enlistee, spouse, and child (if any) between the ages of 11 and 18-were interviewed every four months for three years. Although deployment practices varied across units in terms of the length of each deployment, our study defined deployment individually for each family and tracked it through their own deployment experiences.

The DLS assessed key outcomes such as the quality of marital and parental relationships, family members' mental, behavioral, and physical health, children's well-being, and military integration (or attitudes toward military service). The 2011-2015 DLS allowed researchers to examine family functioning and individual well-being before, during, and after deployment. The analysis sought to answer three questions and the results are detailed below.

By the numbers

  • 2700 Survey of military personnel families
  • 9 surveys of family members before, during, and after deployment.
  • 5 research areas: marriage, family, psychological and behavioral health, child and adolescent well-being, and military integration.

1. What happens to military families during deployment?

The most common theme is that military families are resilient. Despite the problems encountered before and during deployment, family relationships and other outcomes generally returned to their previous levels when the service member returned home.

Family relationships and other outcomes generally returned to previous levels when service members returned home.

Outcomes changed during deployment, some for the better (reduced physical and psychological aggression between partners, soldiers reported improved family climate, increased parental satisfaction, and reduced alcohol use) and some for the worse (increased depressive symptoms in soldiers and spouses, increased posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety symptoms in spouses, increased psychological symptoms in children).

In some cases, service members and spouses had the opposite attitude toward deployment. For example, while service members felt that their parenting experiences were better during the deployment, spouses reported being more dissatisfied with their parenting experiences during the same period.

When soldiers returned home, most of these changes were reversed: by the end of the demobilization phase, family relationships and well-being had generally returned to predeployment levels. The exception was youth participants who reported that their relationship with their deployed parent had deteriorated significantly upon their return.

2. How do post-deployment outcomes differ between deployed and non-deployed families?

Not all workers in the study had been deployed. By comparing the outcomes of families who experienced deployment to those who did not, we sought to determine the causal impact of deployment on family well-being. The results of these analyses were surprising and unambiguous: for many variables, there was little difference between the two groups at the end of the study.

The analysis revealed that the critical factors were preparation for deployment and communication during deployment.

The exceptions were youth and children. At the end of the study, families with deployed spouses reported more difficulties with children (mostly emotional and behavioral problems with peers) than their peers with non-deployed spouses. Interestingly, this concern was only for children under the age of 11, not for adolescents.

No behavioral problems were reported by the youths' parents or by the youths themselves. However, adolescents reported poorer family cohesion and relationship quality with non-working parents than their peers from non-working families.

3. To what extent do family characteristics and assignment explain which families fare better or worse upon return to service?

The analyses showed that preparation and communication were critical factors. For example, the more military members and spouses reported preparing for deployment (by making a financial plan for emergencies or purchasing life insurance), the more satisfied they were as parents after deployment.

The more spouses reported communicating with their partner during deployment and the more satisfied they were with the amount of communication, the more satisfied they were with their marriage after returning to work.

For many variables, there was little difference at the end of the survey between families who had experienced deployment and those who had not.

In addition, couples who left the military after deployment (and during the three years they participated in DLS) reported lower marital satisfaction and increased psychological symptoms at the end of the survey.

It was not possible to determine whether these interventions had a direct effect on family functioning or whether the more or less durable families simply behaved differently during the deployment. These associations emerged even after controlling for family characteristics at the time of study participation, which is consistent with the idea that individual behavior influences family well-being.

The results of the study also suggest that traumatic events during deployment, rather than family separation per se, are the cause of the negative effects associated with deployment. However, the relationship between traumatic experiences and post-deployment outcomes was complex.

DLS assessed the impact of physical trauma (such as being wounded), combat-related trauma (encountering the enemy), and psychological trauma (witnessing or being exposed to trauma) on post-deployment outcomes for military families. These three factors predicted greater symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression, lower satisfaction with the military, and lower intention to remain in the military after deployment.

Other findings differed by type of trauma. For example, according to spouses, exposure to physical and psychological trauma predicted higher levels of psychological and physical aggression in soldiers after deployment; combat-related trauma, on the other hand, predicted lower levels of psychological aggression after deployment in both soldiers and spouses.

Among adolescents, combat-related parental trauma was associated with poorer functioning and relationships with parents, but service member psychological trauma (without injury or combat-related trauma) was associated with better functioning and relationships with parents among adolescents.

The 3 types of deployment injuries examined were as follows

Some results differed based on the type of trauma the service member experienced during deployment.

  • Physical: Service member injury
  • Combat: Fighting the enemy
  • Psychological: Presence or indirect exposure to trauma

Impact on the well-being of military familie

Based on the current findings, RAND researchers have made a number of recommendations to improve the well-being of military families.

  • Programs, services, and policies should target families who experience deployment-related trauma, particularly after return to duty. Given that exposure to military trauma appears to have a number of negative consequences after return home, these families could be supported post-deployment. Programs that target families based on documented experiences rather than self-reported symptoms can help mitigate problems before they affect multiple family members.
  • Addressing problems at the time of separation may be important to prevent long-term harms caused by these problems, such as increased morbidity, homelessness, unemployment, and drug use among veterans. Results show that service members who leave the service after deployment have significantly higher rates of mental health symptoms. Whether or not psychological problems precede separation, the separation period appears to be a high-risk time for those leaving the military.
  • Programs that enable and promote communication between and within military families during deployment can contribute to the well-being of military families. When spouses were satisfied with their communication during deployment, family relationships improved after returning to duty. Maintaining open connections between family members during separation can facilitate the adjustment process after return.
  • Support that helps improve relationships between staff, spouses, and their young children during the post-deployment period can improve family functioning. Given the impact of deployment on the relationship between the young person and both parents, it may be more effective to use programs that focus on preventing deterioration in the quality of relationships and family cohesion after return to duty to promote family well-being than to rely on programs that expect families to seek help when relationships have deteriorated.

The DLS provides a reliable data set that should allow for a more in-depth exploration of the issues and challenges facing military families. These data can be used, for example, to understand predictors of military separation, to further explore the relationship between communication and deployment effects, and to assess the impact of multiple changes on outcomes for military families.

Impact for future research on military families

The findings also highlight a number of areas in which changes to current research strategies could improve the data-both timeliness and quality-to inform policy decisions that help military families.

  • Future research on military families should explore ways to collect data from multiple family members simultaneously. For some outcomes, such as family environment and anxiety, soldiers and spouses report different outcomes during the same deployment period. By collecting data from multiple family members, these differences can be identified and the results can be used to tailor support to individual family members based on their relationship to the service member (e.g., spouse, child, teenager).
  • When funds are scarce, longitudinal studies should be a priority for future research on military families. Compared with retrospective or cross-sectional studies, longitudinal studies that follow the same families over time are the most methodologically reliable means of assessing the impact of deployment on families.
  • Procedures for collecting real-time data from military families should be explored. No single type of real-time data can answer all research and policy questions. Some combination of administrative data on military personnel (such as medical or personal data) and ongoing data from a representative panel of military family members could be a very useful and cost-effective solution for reporting problems in real time.
  • Develop new theories, measures, and analyses to explain the complex relationship between deployment and post-deployment outcomes. The complex pattern of our results warrants further study. Given the mixed results of different types of traumatic experiences, new theories, measures, and analyses are needed to better understand which specific deployment experiences produce lasting effects on service members and their families and how these effects manifest themselves.

Study Limitations

While the DLS is invaluable for its analytical rigor and unprecedented scope, it also has some limitations. First, the study was conducted at a time when the operational tempo of U.S. forces had slowed, battlefields were less volatile, and deployments were less dangerous than in the years before. Second, the majority of eligible married service members had already been deployed when DLS recruitment began.

This means that the families most at risk of negative consequences may have left the military or resigned before the study began. The impact on first-time deployees may be very different from the results for families with more deployment experience. The study focused on married families with children and families without children, so the results cannot be extended to single-parent families or single parents.

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