Support for Soldiers and Their Families in Civil Life
Since 2001, an unprecedented number of National Guardsmen and Reservists have been deployed to key missions in foreign operations. More than 800,000 Reservists have been called to active duty since September 11, 2001. These increased requirements have resulted in an increasing number of recruits and reservists being sent overseas, often for long or fast combat missions.
In many cases, this change in the pace of operations places a strain on families, especially as soldiers return to civilian life and work after a deployment. A smooth demobilization is important not only for family well-being, but also for military readiness.
Despite the importance of demobilization, few studies have examined what soldiers' and reservists' families actually experience during this period. A recent study by the RAND Corporation has attempted to fill this gap by conducting one of the most comprehensive reviews to date of the experiences of reservists and their families during deployment.
- There is no quick fix for discharge, and the difficulties encountered during discharge vary among families and over time.
- Families who feel they have adjusted well are more likely to have a positive attitude toward continued service in the National Guard or Reserve.
- While family initiative is crucial to successful demobilization, the military can play a role by emphasizing early preparation and encouraging good communication.
- There are many resource providers outside the military, but lack of coordination and other obstacles may prevent families from taking advantage of this broad “support network.”
RAND researchers conducted a survey and interviews with military personnel and their spouses. Their responses revealed that families who had successfully reintegrated shared some common characteristics. These families felt prepared for deployment, had good communication with the service member and his or her unit while overseas, and were generally financially secure.
Once a service member has been with his or her unit and returned home without combat wounds, other physical injuries, or psychological problems, rehabilitation is often easier.
In many cases, family initiative has been the key to a smooth discharge after deployment: good communication, informed family life, and use of discharge resources have contributed to positive outcomes.
The U.S. Department of Defense can use these results to empower families to actively and effectively plan for their own demobilization. This is important because families who reported that the discharge had gone well were also more likely to be positive about the member's continued service in the National Guard or Reserve.
Although many families in the study had a satisfactory discharge, others had problems with one or more of the following: emotional or mental health, health care, civilian work, spouse/partner relationships, financial or legal issues, child welfare, and education.
Some of the problems arose soon after the member's return, some later, and others varied during the reintegration process. These families tended to have different characteristics than those associated with successful reintegration. The RAND study aimed to understand these problems and how the military could more effectively mitigate them.
Integration tools: a support network
Reservists' families have access to a number of resources that RAND researchers refer to as a support network (see figure). These resources offer assistance in a variety of areas, including education, health care, emotional support, and social networks.
Families most frequently cited services provided by the military, but noted that assistance was also provided by private organizations, faith-based organizations, and local and national organizations. In addition, nearly half of the military and reservist families interviewed sought help from informal sources: family, friends, and social networks.
However, despite the many resources available, it can be difficult to support military and Reserve families. These families may be unaware of resources or have difficulty accessing them. They are concerned about quality and sometimes feel overwhelmed by the support network. Resource providers also face barriers to supporting families.
Service providers interviewed for the study noted that some populations are difficult to reach, particularly because many reservist families do not live near military installations and are geographically dispersed. The stigma associated with seeking help, lack of coordination among providers, and, in many cases, poor evaluation of provider effectiveness also hinder providers' efforts to help these families.
Improve support from the Ministry of Defense
Although some of the responsibility for a successful discharge rests with reservists, service personnel and their families, the MoD can facilitate the process. Based on the results of the study, recommendations were made in two broad areas: improving the support resources of the armed forces and improving the wider family support network.
Maintaining good contact, intentional family time, and use of integration resources contributed to positive outcomes for reserve families.
Increase resources to support the military
- Focus on early preparation for reintegration. For example, promoting pre-deployment family readiness and planning ahead for the return of serving personnel can facilitate smooth reintegration. The MoD should explore ways to reach out to families prior to deployment.
- Ensure the involvement of family members in the reintegration process. Spouses are especially important, as they can be a vital support to soldiers, provided they are kept informed and their needs are taken into account. Good communication is essential to ensure the equal participation of all family members and should be encouraged by the armed forces.
- Changing the perception of integration. Contrary to popular belief, there is no right or wrong way to reintegrate. DoD can influence the perception of reintegration in a number of ways, such as reducing the stigma of seeking treatment for problems and recognizing positive reintegration strategies.
- Ensuring that units have the necessary resources to support families. Unit resources were one of the most important resources used by study participants, both to prepare for integration and to cope with the integration phase. It is therefore important that services have the means to maintain regular and personal contact with families and provide them with information about available resources to help them reintegrate into society.
Enhancing the broader family support network
While the military plays an important role in supporting reservists' families during deployment, it should not do everything. The second set of recommendations focuses on improving the support network.
- Family support for a broader target group. DoD should expand its efforts to leverage support resources provided by non-government programs, promote community awareness of the challenges faced by Reserve families, and recognize employers who support Guard and Reserve personnel.
- Identify gaps and overlaps in the support network. The support network could be an effective resource to assist Guard and Reserve families, and the Army should leverage the efforts of other organizations.
Facilitate coordination among resource providers. The MOD can help improve communication between different types of resource providers and leverage existing networks.
- Work with providers to address the causes of resource underutilization. This could include efforts to target assistance to specific populations, reaching them at different stages of deployment and using informal resources such as social networks. The Ministry of Sustainable Development can also support efforts to improve natural resource inventories at the national level, involving more NGOs and making them more user-friendly.
- Encourage resource providers to develop and learn from efficiency measures. The military should stress to resource providers the importance of evaluating how they are meeting the needs of reservist families, and emphasize that the most useful measures are outcome- and resource-based.
The needs of reservist families are constantly evolving and therefore require constant attention. Although military operations in Afghanistan are coming to an end, reintegration support remains important as reservists are likely to be called back for contingency and wartime deployments.
In addition, soldiers who have served over the past decade and their families may face longer-term challenges that have yet to emerge and deserve continued national support.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.