I want to expand upon an issue raised by Dr. Jennifer Philips in her blog on military children’s resilience. Dr. Phillips explored some of the positive outcomes of military children who experience frequent relocations. Moving is a universal experience of military families, but it becomes even more complicated when the children in the family are in high school.
In the next year, my family will be facing the possibility of another military move. My active duty Navy spouse is nearing the end of his shore duty tour at the Pentagon and we know that he will be receiving orders to a fleet concentration area. With two children in high school, we are faced with the possibility of moving one of our children during his senior year of high school…. or not moving with my husband and having him do a geographic bachelor (or “geo-bach”) tour. Most military families are familiar with what a geo-bach tour entails. Basically, it is a tour where the Service member is stationed in one location and the family lives in another. Although I have heard about these tours, I had never before considered one until now.
Since having children, we have moved eight times - our boys have lived in Rhode Island, Florida, Virginia, California, Hawaii, and Japan. With each move, they looked forward to the adventures that came with a new duty station, city, state and sometimes country. They developed skills to make new friends, adapt to changes in routines and adjust to new school expectations. Our last move was from Florida to Virginia and both of my children were in middle school at the time. Since they were getting older I could see how much harder it was than previous moves, but they never asked about (and we never considered) the possibility of not moving.
Here in Virginia we live off-base in a neighborhood where most of the children have grown up in the house where they currently live. My children have stated that things seem more stable here compared to how transient things felt when they previously lived on-base with neighbors moving all the time. This time, my children asked if we could stay here and not move to wherever my husband goes next.
There is actually very little written about the issues faced by geo-bach couples and families. A quick Google search on this topic revealed articles titled “Geographic Bachelorhood for Dummies?”, “Geographic Bachelor Tours can be more Curse than Blessing” and “We're Still far away from Figuring out the Phenom of Geographic Bachelors”. From the titles it appears that most of these articles make the argument against these tours. There is even a four question quiz available online which was created by a military family member to help other families determine if a geo-bach tour is right for them.
The prevalence of geographic bachelor tours in the military is difficult to measure because it is not an officially recognized military program or status. However, in the most recent Blue Star Families Survey published in 2015, 20% of respondents indicated they had made the decision to geo-bach at least once during the Service member’s career. The top three reasons cited in the survey to complete a geo-bach tour were: spouse’s career, orders not long enough to justify moving their family, and children’s education.
As I said previously, the reason we are considering this is because our children have expressed a desire to finish high school here in Virginia and avoid another move. This will be a very difficult decision especially because there is no manual for how to handle this, nor is there research on families who have tried it both ways and explored which one had better outcomes. In reading some of the non-research articles I found on the internet as well as people’s comments about them, I saw statements which directly contradicted each other. For example statements like “you should never move a child during their senior year” and yet others which state that families should “always live in the same location as their Service member no matter what”. Clearly, the decision about what to do needs to be left up to each family to decide based on their own unique circumstances but advice which includes statements starting with “never” and “always” are the least helpful.
In looking at the research which exists related specifically to military adolescents and moving, Bradshaw et al. (2010) shows that those who move experience certain stressors including: creating tensions at home, adapting to a new school, academic challenges, student/teacher relationship problems, and difficulty engaging in extracurricular activities. The same article also explores some of the coping techniques these adolescents use to successfully navigate these moves including becoming more adaptable, accelerated maturity, connecting with school staff, and connecting with other military adolescents and families. This speaks to the importance of relationships with other military children and families. Bradshaw also found that military children were perceived as being more accepting and willing to reach out to new students – a finding that is consistent with other research showing that the stressors military children face related to moving create opportunities for growth and resilience (Weber & Weber, 2005).
Like with many other dilemmas my family has faced, I find myself turning to my peers - other military families who have faced this situation – for advice. One friend who moved before oldest son’s senior year said it was a very difficult move because her son didn’t make any friends in his last year of high school. She is making the decision to have her husband complete his next tour as a geographic bachelor to allow her other children can stay in their current high school long enough to graduate. Another friend is one year into her husband’s geographic bachelor tour. She said she is happy they made the decision to let the children finish high school without moving them, but that the separation has been very challenging, more for her as a parent then for the children. Finally, another military spouse said she moved her son midway through his junior year and he had a seamless transition to the new duty station and school. She was very glad that their family stayed together despite the concerns she initially had. These experiences reinforce the fact that this needs to be a personal decision based on each family’s unique needs.
Besides the obvious separation that a geo-bach tour creates, there are additional issues to consider such as financial challenges and lack of social supports. The financial implications of such a tour can be significant. When living separately, a family must support two households in different cities and the BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) can depend on the location of the Service member and not the family. The costs of traveling to see each other can also add up depending on how far apart the family is from the Service member’s duty station.
The issue of social supports can also not be ignored. In our situation, when a Service member is assigned to a ship, there are inherent supports which exist within the larger “ship family”. The Family Readiness Group (FRG), contact with the Ombudsman as well as informal connections with other families with the same schedule are valuable for parents as well as children. By not moving to that location, some of that formal and informal support will be lost.
For my family, we know that we function best when we are operating together as a whole unit. My husband is very engaged in my boys’ lives and we work hard to embrace our time together. For a Navy family, this is the benefit of shore duty and also part of what makes returning to the schedule of sea duty so challenging. We have been together without deployment or even significant time apart for over two years and have adapted to this rhythm. Now, we need to begin to look at a change which will either involve a move or a tour apart.
It is an oft-quoted truism that “Families serve, too” and facing decisions about uprooting children during the prime of their high school experience or depriving them of regular access to a parent during their formative years is a good example of this. As a mental health professional, I am probably more apt to dig into the research when faced with a dilemma but in this situation, it doesn’t provide any easy answers. I know our family will make the best decision for us. Whatever we decide, we will get through this tour and have stories to share with the next family who faces this decision.
April Thompson, LCSW, is a clinical social worker currently working as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she is responsible for the development and delivery of both live and web-based trainings to military and civilian mental health providers on deployment-related topics.
Bradshaw, C.P., Sudhinaraset, K., Mmari, K. & Blum, R W. (2010). School Transitions among Military Adolescents: A Qualitative Study of Stress and Coping. School Psychology Review, 39(1), 84-105.
Department of Research and Policy, Blue Star Families, in collaboration with Institute of Veterans and Military Families, Syracuse University (IVMF) (2015) Annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey: Comprehensive Report. Retrieved from: https://bluestarfam.org/wpontent/uploads/2016/04/bsf_2015_comprehensive_report.pdf
Weber, E.G. & Weber, D.K. (2005). Geographic relocation frequency, resilience, and military adolescent behavior, Military Medicine, 170(7), 638-642.