Extended involvement of the United States military in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to new realities for military personnel and their families. The mental health consequences for returning and redeployed soldiers are well-established, but the psychological, financial, and social burden on the spouses and children of deployed military personnel is only now emerging as an important issue. Families experience stress before, during, and after deployment. Husbands and wives left at home face financial challenges, loneliness, and additional parenting responsibilities. Children experience anxiety, behavioral problems, and stress, often lasting years beyond the initial deployment.

On Oct. 28, 2011, the Population Reference Bureau and the Hopkins Population Center sponsored its 5th Annual Symposium on Policy and Health: “The Effects of Military Deployment on Family Health.”

This year’s symposium included:

  • David R. Segal, Professor of Sociology, and Director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, University of Maryland: “Setting the Agenda for Policy and Research: Demography of the American Military Family” (PDF: 236KB)
  • Robert W. Blum, William H. Gates Sr. Professor and Chair, Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: “The Impact of Deployment on Children and Their Families” (PDF: 762KB)
  • Cmdr. Gregory H. Gorman, U.S. Navy, Department of Pediatrics, Uniformed Services University and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center: “Child Health and Parent Military Deployment” (PDF: 959KB)
  • Valerie Maholmes (discussant), Director, Social and Affective Development/Child Maltreatment and Violence Program, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

David Segal noted that the military has not been a major institutional presence in American society for most of our history. During peacetime we have had small military forces, representing less than 1 percent of the population. But the numbers are not small. Since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Segal noted, about 5 million military personnel have been mobilized; and about 3 million of them joined after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In 1973, the United States shifted from a conscription force to a volunteer force; thus, the military is keeping personnel (and their families longer). Segal’s research shows that spouse and family satisfaction with military life are major factors in decisions to stay in or separate from the military. Compared to their civilian counterparts, service members are more likely to be married, more likely to be married at younger ages, and more likely to have young children at home. Of military families with children, 73 percent of children are under 12; almost half are under 5. Geographic mobility influences spouse satisfaction: for each additional year of tour length, the likelihood of spouse dissatisfaction decreased by 4 percent.

Robert Blum and colleagues recently surveyed military families stationed in Hawaii to gauge the impact of deployment on young people. The surveys sample consisted of 1,137 parent surveys and 153 child surveys. Blum noted that Hawaii is an atypical post for the military: It is the command for the Pacific for many branches of the service; therefore, service members stationed in Hawaii are older and more highly educated than other service members. Survey results showed that nearly 20 percent indicated that deployment increase family strain and problems, with 33 percent noting that the problems are psychological. Especially hard for any service member is redeployment. Nineteen percent of parents surveyed said that redeployment made it harder for the family to get along; but 16 percent said that the redeployment made the family stronger and closer. Half of parents said that deployment takes a significant toll on their children. Two-thirds of the children surveyed who had a parent who was deployed said they had more emotional or behavioral problems because of the deployment; and 19 percent indicated that they wished they could speak with someone about deployment but didn’t feel they could.

Cmdr. Gregory Gorman and colleagues undertook research on the health effects of deployment on children. Gorman noted that there are new stressors from the two current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: six times more casualties than Gulf War 1; frequent recurring deployments; and an all-volunteer fighting force, which has led to more spouses and children. Among children up to age 5 of military families, other research has shown anxiety tantrums; school-age children will have mood changes and problems at school; school issues; and physical symptoms that do not have a clear physical cause. Teenagers have the widest variety of symptoms: anger, acting out, and apathy. Gorman’s research looked at visits to a medical provider during 2006 and 2007 (a high deployment cycle), reviewing records of 900,000 children up to age 8. Parents in military families brought kids in a little more often for all types of visits, most likely because health care and support systems were readily available on base. But at-home fathers (wife deployed) were less likely to bring kids in than at-home mothers; and married families were more likely to bring children in for visits than single-parent families. But overall, parents are less likely to bring their children in for any visit, except for mental health visits when the parent suspects that the child has attention deficit disorder. Among children ages 3 to 8, there was a 12 percent increase in anxiety disorders when a parent was deployed, a 17 percent increase for pediatric behavioral disorders, and a 25 percent increase for stress disorders. Gorman concluded his presentation by stating: “Our fighting men and women fight better when we take care of their families back home.”

Valerie Maholmes, in her role as discussant, reviewed the data presented by Segal, Blum, and Gorman, and along with other research, offered the following comments. More than 2 million children have had a parent deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Young children may be particularly affected by the frequent and lengthy separations depending on their relationship to their parents. Prolonged separations may interfere with a child’s process of attachment and bonding to a parent, potentially leading to significant child behavior problems. For adolescents, social competencies have been linked to their feelings of connection to their parents, and deployments affect these connections. During deployments, adolescents in particular may take on more responsibilities in the home. While they may embrace this mature level of functioning, others may be angry or aloof. Maholmes suggested that much more empirical work is needed on adolescent development, along with research that helps us understand the factors that may contribute to stress in military families. Despite these challenges, military families and children are remarkably resilient, she said.