Resilience and Perseverance of Military Families

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Debra Mendelsohn feels the nightly terror of a loved one in danger, the heartbreaking frustration of being a single mother of two, and the strain of a bad Skype connection. Her family is a military family that has stuck together through three deployments that could have tested them, but did not. He came to rely on what a major RAND study recently found: military families survive most situations.

The study confirmed the findings of earlier studies that deployment of a spouse and parent can shake a family, but it went further and revealed something unexpected. On several indicators of family health and functioning, most of the study participants were approaching their pre-homecoming levels.

“Families serve, too, but that doesn't mean we're broken,” said Mendelsohn, a protective mother whose husband Bill was last deployed to southern Iraq in 2010 as an Army logistics unit commander. “We've just changed. It's part of the fabric of our family.”

The RAND study was an unprecedented three-year effort to answer a question made brutal by years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan: how do families survive when a loved one is sent to war? At RAND, it has been given such prominence that some 30 researchers have contributed their own research.

Soldiers and their families consistently cite deployments as the most stressful experience the military has to offer. Studies have linked deployment stress to suicide, divorce, and childhood behavioral problems. However, no one has followed a large sample of military families before, during, and after deployment to find out what happens.

RAND researchers followed nearly 3,000 military families for three years, some of whom left and some of whom did not. This allowed the researchers to compare results and see the impact of deployments in addition to the daily stresses of military life.

They found many examples. Members of the military experienced more depression while they were away, and their spouses experienced more anxiety and the stress of single parenting. Their children were more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems that worsened as the deployment progressed.

The study was an unprecedented three-year attempt to answer a question that has gone unanswered after years of struggle.

How military families cope

But when the researchers followed the families after their return, another pattern emerged. In all cases, they observed dramatic changes in family functioning during deployment, but slowly but inexorably returning to pre-deployment levels. By the end of the integration period – eight months on average – family relationships and well-being had generally returned to pre-deployment levels.

There were exceptions. Adolescents reported that their relationships had deteriorated following the return of the parent who had left. Parents reported being more concerned about their children's emotional well-being, even long after deployment.

Both men and women reported a significant decrease in marital satisfaction during deployment, but this was also the case for couples who were not deployed. This decline in satisfaction is one of the most reliable findings of any study of married couples over time, whether deployed or not. However, the study highlighted what the researchers called the remarkable resilience of military families, from parental stress to spousal depression to teen anxiety.

“We think no, these families must be worse off. That's how all the [research] literature says deployment is bad,” said Sarah O.. Meadows, a senior sociologist at RAND who co-led the study and recently briefed the White House on the study's findings. “But there is something about the families in our study that allows them to survive. In the end, they seem to survive.”

Severity of trauma

The researchers are quick to point out that the study was a product of its time. The participating families were almost all veterans who had already been deployed at least once. They were interviewed between 2012 and 2015, well after the bloodiest years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and at a time when deployments had slowed. However, some of the soldiers interviewed had suffered combat trauma, physical injury or psychological shock during their deployments.

The study found that these different types of trauma affected families in different ways. For example, psychological trauma was associated with higher levels of marital aggression, while combat appeared to strain the relationship between parents and adolescents. In fact, these traumatic experiences-and not divorce per se-may better explain the negative family outcomes that have been associated with deployments for so long, the researchers wrote.

These findings may help military personnel better anticipate which families may need more support after a deployment, even in the absence of PTSD or other clinical warning signs. “It's constant stress and pressure that really increases over time,” said Karen Ruedisueli, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association.

Her husband is currently serving in Afghanistan, his fourth combat deployment. The last one, in 2010, was so dangerous that two officers from another unit died before his deployment officially began. “I slept with my fists, so my hands hurt,” Ruedisueli said. “Did it bring us to our knees? No, but it certainly had an effect.”

The Journey Home

Experiences like this underscore another key finding of the RAND study, which is that reintegrating families immediately after deployment is crucial. The study underscores the need for more programs that ease the transition for families; for example, increased support for ex-military personnel with mental health issues and strengthening relationships between parents and teens.

Erin Henderschedt has been deployed seven times. She documents life as a Marine wife and mother of four on her blog, The Deployment Diatribes. She compares family life while juggling deployment to riding a unicycle and says it doesn't get much easier when deployment is over.

“You see YouTube videos and news clips when those deployed come home,” he said from his home in East Asia, where his family is currently deployed. “It's great, it's a fantastic time. But then the cameras go away. And it can be months before everything calms down.”

“The cameras go away. And it can be months before everything calms down.”

It took Debra Mendelsohn exactly 18 months for her husband Bill to turn to her on a coffee date and say, “You know, I feel like we're finally back.” After her mission in southern Iraq, she had to get used to talking to the two teenagers who lived in the house all the time; she had to remember to reintroduce them as “our kids” and not just “my kids.”

She didn't know he had been in actual combat during his deployment until she picked him up at the airport and saw the military insignia under his jacket. She patted his hand. Later, however, she realized it was a symbol of what he had survived, and what they had all survived. “I felt,” she says now, “that we had earned our own version of a combat badge back home.”

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