You have probably heard many Service members and Veterans talk about having family members or close friends who have served. This is not surprising or uncommon to see across many career fields. Having a close friend or relative “sell” you on the benefits of any decision can definitely increase desirability and buy-in. I know that I talked to both active duty Service members and Veterans (to include family members) before I signed on the dotted line. I also know that I have shared my military experience with many individuals who were curious about potentially entering military service. I think that is why I was so interested in the 2016 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report. The report describes how military family members play a large role in military recruitment and retention decisions.
The Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey is an annual survey that collects data on the top issues facing military families. The 2016 survey was the 7th annual survey and it had over 8,300 respondents to include military spouses, Service members, and Veterans. If you are working with a military population, I highly encourage you to review the comprehensive report. You can find it at: https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ComprehensiveReport-33.pdf
As I mentioned earlier, it is not unusual for individuals who choose to join the military to have a close family member who has served. In the 2016 survey, 56% of respondents reported they had multiple immediate family members who were Veterans or actively serving. In addition, 57% of Veterans in the survey and 45% of active duty Service members reported they had a parent who served. What might surprise some is that we see the same military family connection with military spouses, with 47% indicating they had a parent who served, which is a rate slightly higher than reported by active duty Service members.
When looking specifically at recruitment there were two identified groups: those who were likely to recommend service to others and those who were unlikely to recommend service to others. Individuals were more likely to recommend military service if they were: active duty Service members, officers, Service members with 2 or fewer deployments, employed military spouses, and if they were recommending to young people who were not their children. Individuals were unlikely to recommend military service if they were: military spouses, enlisted, Service members with 3 or more deployments, unemployed spouses, and if they were recommending to their own children.
I think all of the above information is fascinating, but the one finding that really stood out to me is the discrepancy between recommending military service to a young person versus one’s own child. In the 2016 survey, when asked if they would recommend military service to others, 66% of active duty military family respondents reported they would recommend military service to a young person while only 43% would recommend it to their own child. You may read those responses and ask yourself, “Why the discrepancy?” I know I did, but only for a minute.
As a Veteran and military spouse this is something I have thought about a lot. I thought about it when I was active duty, especially when I was deployed, and I continue to think about it even more now as a military spouse and parent. In fact, my 6-year old (who reminds me daily that he is almost 7), has asked me multiple times about serving when he is older. He even talks about being a scientist in the Air Force. I want my first answer to always be, “Of course, military service is valuable and rewarding.” And trust me, most of me believes that statement. However, there is the mother/Veteran in me that sometimes thinks differently.
As a psychologist I like to think I am aware of many of my own biases. I try to be aware of how I respond to the world and to others around me. I try to be thoughtful of how my service has affected both me and my family. When I deployed in 2006 I was single with no children. The primary people I worried about when I was deployed were my parents. They were also the same individuals who I had to sit down and walk through my will and power of attorney with. I remember thinking, this has to be tough on them; but honestly it wasn’t until years later when I became a mother that I truly understood how difficult that experience had to be for them. Over the past 14 years I have had many discussions with teenagers and young adults about military service. Some discussions are about general military service and others have been about what it was like being a military psychologist. I actually really enjoy talking to others about my military service experience, why I joined, what I found rewarding, and also about some of the more challenging aspects.
My young cousin recently joined the military. I think his curiosity about the military surprised many of us initially. However, his grandfather is a Veteran, as is my father (his great-uncle). In addition, I am a Veteran and my husband is currently serving on active duty. Both my husband and I shared our personal thoughts with him about joining and what military service has to offer. Many of the things we shared are consistent with what was reported in the 2016 Blue Star Families report for being reasons for joining: being part of something bigger than yourself, education benefits, new experiences/travel, etc. I am not sure how all of my family members felt about us sharing our thoughts and perspectives with him, but I wanted to him to talk to someone who had served/is serving to hear about both the benefits and the challenges of military service. Ultimately, he made the decision to join and I am beyond proud of him. As I write this, he is actually deployed and thriving in the Air Force.
So, getting back to my own child. Will I recommend military service to him when he is older? I want to say, “Yes, for sure!” That seems like the appropriate answer, right? At this point in time I lean more that way than not, but I also know that it may be a different world in 11 years. Our son knows some of what it is like to serve. He has already made many sacrifices himself at his young age and is familiar with the top lifestyle stressors noted in the 2016 Blue Star Families report: deployment, separation, relocation. In his short life, he has already lived in 3 states, experienced over a year of separation from his father, and knows what it is like to say good-bye to friends and family multiple times. However, he has only known being part of a military family. It seems impossible for him at his age to be able to separate military life from civilian life.
A couple of additional interesting findings regarding recruitment in the 2016 Blue Star Families report are that 57% of Veteran family respondents would recommend service to their own children compared to only 43% of active duty family members. In addition, only 19% of active duty military family respondents would recommend military service to a young person close to them if the current trend of cutting or altering military benefits continues. So, there are some caveats. Potentially, currently being a military family may make one’s perspective different. Active duty family members may be focused on more of the challenges, whereas Veteran family members may remember more of the benefits. That is consistent with the report’s finding that 88% of active duty family respondents felt that the general public does not understand the sacrifices made by Service members and their families.
We are a military family and have loved/love serving. We have also openly shared the benefits of that service with many. Who knows what the future will bring? What we do know, is that military connectedness is important, especially in an all-volunteer force and definitely something that needs continued research. I would love to hear from other military related family members on how they feel about recommending service to others close to them, especially their own children.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Blue Star Families. (2016). 2016 annual military family lifestyle survey: Comprehensive report. Retrieved from: https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ComprehensiveReport-33.pdf
Lisa French, Psy.D. is the Assistant Director of Military Training Programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.