What We Do Not Know and What We Know of Military Families

Today’s soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen face unprecedented stresses, including repeated and prolonged deployments to hostile environments, far from home and far from friends and family. The media, journalists, politicians, military leaders and, perhaps most importantly for readers of the NCFR report, genealogists have reported on these stresses.

Family researchers-including social workers, psychologists, sociologists, and economists-have brought critical thinking, sophisticated methodologies, and policy analysis to a unique population that has often not received the same attention as their civilian counterparts. (Research on military families is not new, but I would argue that it has been updated in the last decade.)

In this article, which builds on this revitalized line of research, my goal is to give readers who may or may not be familiar with this work a sense of what we do and do not know about military families.

What we do know

Selected references for this section can be found in Hosek (2011).

Children of military personnel are more likely to have certain problems than children of civilian personnel.

There is evidence that children in military families, particularly those who have been separated from a deployed parent for a long period of time, have many more problems, including emotional and behavioral problems, than children in nonmilitary families.

The RAND Children on the Homefront study shows that children of currently deployed parents have more anxiety symptoms than children of the same age in a comparable national sample (about 4%). Other studies have shown similar results for behavioral problems (e.g., aggression) and internalizing symptoms (e.g., sadness). The health and well-being of the child’s non-offending parent is an important indicator of the child’s ability to cope with parental dependency.

Despite military stress, resilience is common in military families.

Although the well-being of children (and, to some extent, parents) in military families deteriorates, especially during parental deployment, most families find ways to cope. Previous studies have shown that, in peacetime, the mental health and behavior of children in military families does not differ from that of their non-military peers, and in some cases they even fare better.

Other studies have shown that, although children’s symptoms may increase during deployment, the severity of symptoms does not usually reach a clinical threshold. Recent studies have found limited (and conflicting) evidence that placements affect specific school outcomes such as attendance, learning outcomes, and achievement. Overall, these studies suggest that negative outcomes for military families are not inevitable.

National Guard and Reserve families often face unique challenges.

Deployments are stressful for all families, but a growing body of research suggests that they can be even more stressful for the families of the nearly 1.1 million soldiers who are members of National Guard or Reserve units. These families often live far from the resources and support systems available to active-duty families living on or near a military base. Reservists’ children may be the only children in their entire school who have a military parent.

Because of their situation, Guard and Reserve families often don’t know what to expect when they are deployed and don’t always know where to turn for help when they need it. In addition, teachers, pediatricians, psychologists, and other service providers in these communities often lack the military expertise (e.g., cultural awareness, knowledge, and access to resources) needed to support these families.

And what we do not know

We know more than the handful of things described above. However, despite the extensive literature on military families, there remain a number of questions that, for one reason or another (primarily due to the lack of longitudinal data on military families, see Segal & Kleykamp, 2011), have not been addressed.

What is a military family?

We can assume that there is a father in the military, a mother, and one or two children, right? Not quite. Although the married two-parent family remains the norm among military families, it is not the only type. Women represent 15-20% of the total military population, depending on type of service (e.g., Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) and rank (e.g., officer or enlisted) (see Demographics 2009, 2009).

Single-parent families account for just over 5% of the current military population (Hosek, 2011). Single, unmarried military members are an understudied demographic and the meaning of family to them is far from clear. Is it a family of origin (e.g., parents, siblings), a life partner, or even a Fido or Fuzzy? With the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, LGBT families, which have so far received very little research, could receive much more attention from family researchers.

What makes a military family flexible?

As noted above, research on military families shows that most families can cope with the stresses of military service. However, we do not know exactly what makes these families resilient. Do they have innate abilities that set them apart in some way from their civilian counterparts? In other words, are the most resilient families selected for the military in the first place? (I suspect the answer is no, but the jury is still out.)

Does the military immunize families against the adverse effects of stress in any way? Much attention has been paid to building these “resilience factors,” but how effective have these efforts been? What exactly do military families do and what resources are available to them to cope with deployments, moves (or other service-related moves), the absence of parents and spouses, and the risk of injury or death?

What are the keys to a successful post-deployment life?

Similarly, we actually know very little about the factors that pave the way for a smooth integration process after a family member returns from deployment. To date, military family researchers have focused primarily on the rapid cycle of deployment and repatriation.

However, as increasing numbers of military members return home without the need for redeployment, we must now focus on the long-term reintegration of military members into their families and society. My colleagues at RAND have reported that about 20% of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan meet criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and 20% meet criteria for probable traumatic brain injury (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008).

These “invisible injuries” are likely more difficult to treat than more obvious physical injuries. How do families cope with the return of a loved one, given the potential injuries of recent veterans, possible exposure to horrific events on the battlefield, and months away from home?

What happens to children of soldiers as they reach adulthood and beyond?

A 10-year-old child with a parent who was deployed in 2001, shortly after 9/11, would be 20 years old today. How would that child fare today? Is he or she in school or working full time? Has this child enlisted in the military? Is he or she married, cohabitating, or a parent? How will the parent’s deployment affect the relationship between the child and the parent when the parent returns home and the child becomes an adult?

We simply do not know the answers to these life course questions. In a sense, these questions may be good questions, but when we scratch the surface, we quickly discover that the answers affect family formation, fertility rates, education levels, unemployment, poverty, etc. In addition, they can have a dramatic impact on the future of our volunteer military, which has a large number of aging members (Ferris, 1981; Segal & Segal, 2004).

How can we combine research with civilian and military services to provide the most effective support for military families?

Finally, on the policy side, we have not yet fully succeeded in combining research and support services. Last April, I attended the 2011 Family Resilience Conference, sponsored by the Department of Defense and USDA. At this point, you may be wondering why the USDA co-sponsored the conference with the Department of Defense.

I’ll spare you the details, but basically, land-grant universities (e.g., Penn State, Ohio, Cornell) have mandatory cooperative extension services whose mission is (more or less) to serve the public good (USDA, 2011; see Proclamation, 2011). In this case, the public good consisted of getting scientists, policy makers, and service providers in the same room and forcing them to talk to each other. In many ways, I think we were all a bit out of our comfort zone.

But I soon realized that, as a scientist, I had to find a way to communicate with these people. I can’t expect them to read the latest issue of JMF or Armed Forces and Society (I rarely have time for that myself!), and likewise they have to tell me what works and what doesn’t, what is applicable and what isn’t, what helps and what hurts.

Let’s go for it!

How can the gaps described above be filled? One way to answer many of these questions is to use longitudinal data, of which there is surprisingly little for military families. That is why I am delighted to participate in the RAND Longevity Study. Over the next three years, we will follow about 2,000 military families, both active and reserve, throughout their deployment, from preparation for departure to return home.

Most interestingly, we will receive data from three family members – soldiers, their spouses and children – about three times a year. Three years x three times a year x three family members, or 27 surveys per family. By collecting a wealth of data on military experiences, family activities, and mental and physical health, we hope to address some of the complex questions that still elude military family researchers.

My colleagues and I at RAND are not the only researchers studying military family issues. The Institute for the Study of Military Families at Purdue University is conducting longitudinal research on National Guard families. In 2010, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, with assistance from the Department of Defense Information Center, launched the Military Family Life Project, a survey of approximately 30,000 soldiers and their spouses.

A follow-up study will be conducted next year. The lieutenant general’s Joining Forces initiative could also offer researchers more opportunities to interact with colleagues outside academia. These and similar efforts should keep us busy for some time.

I may be biased, but I think this is an incredibly exciting time for researchers interested in the health and well-being of military families. Probably never before in our nation’s history have our military and their families faced so many challenges, and never before have their struggles (and their successes) been so scientifically studied.

The work we do is very important to their families and, as a policymaker, I am fortunate to see this firsthand. And the work we are doing to understand how these families cope with stress will have implications for broader research on family stress and coping.

While we know a lot about what it means to be a military family, our work is not yet done. It is likely to be difficult to prioritize the many unanswered questions in today’s resource-constrained environment. However, we must continue to expand our knowledge base, not only as a public contribution to the scientific community, but also as a way of saying “thank you” to those who certainly deserve it. Reprinted from a publication of the National Council on Family Relations.

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