As November begins, and we celebrate military families, I contemplate ways civilian communities can offer additional support. We know that military families are resilient. They are faced with many stressors that non-military families do not face (deployments, multiple Permanent Change of Stations (PCS), and repeated school transitions for children). Many military families navigate these stressors with minimal difficulty.
While military families can navigate these challenges, there are things we as a civilian communities should do to support them. There are some tried and true ways to help: offering to cook a meal, providing transportation for kids, mowing lawns, among others. Oftentimes we want to offer support, but we may not have the personal connections to be able to do so. With only approximately 0.5% of Americans serving in the military (Blue Star Families, 2021), a lack of personal connection may leave civilians with a sense of frustration about knowing how to help. Thinking outside of the box can provide the opportunity to support military-connected families in our communities.
Many of the challenges military families face are complex and require complex solutions. If they were easily solvable, they would have been fixed before now. It can be overwhelming as individuals to think about eliminating suicide, ensuring affordable, quality childcare, or providing military spouses with the opportunity for meaningful employment. However, by looking at smaller pieces of each challenge, a path may emerge for concerned civilians to offer support.
Being curious goes a long way in solving these issues. What are the issues facing military families in your own state and local community? What resources are in existence? What has been done previously to address this? Who is interested in solving this problem? There are resources to assist in answering those questions. Measuring Communities (measuringcommunities.org) is a free, publicly accessible website where a multitude of data sets can be looked at together. By combining data sets from multiple domains, a clearer picture is formed of current strengths and needs. Each year, Blue Star Families conducts an annual survey and publishes its findings. In 2020, over 10,000 military-connected individuals responded (Blue Star Families, 2020). This anonymous, self-report survey gives us a glimpse into military-connected individuals and families in our country.
At a previous position, I had the opportunity to look at common challenges on a broader, state and local level. This work taught me to be curious about how these challenges might be addressed using existing resources and support. By being curious and convening unlikely stakeholders, we were able to begin addressing some of these complex issues in Indiana. For example, we know that suicide risk involves a number of factors, one of which is financial instability. By recognizing this connection, we were able to engage the banking industry in part of financial literacy education and suicide prevention efforts.
We created a working group of Personal Financial Counselors (PFCs) employed by the National Guard and financial institutions who had military specific banking products. One point of contact at a financial institute was a military brat (child with a military parent), who had an interest in giving back. By using her bank’s existing financial literacy education program and adding military specific talking points (think: blended retirement system, what is a Leave Earning Statement, pay disruptions for the Reserve Component when being placed on active orders, etc.), the bank was better able to serve the military-connected customers they already had. These changes occurred at a corporate level and now the institution has materials to better serve the military population. Additionally, their staff have the education and tools to help customers with their financial stability. Financial stability is one piece of suicide risk and by addressing this one piece, overall risk can be reduced. The working group also provided other resources to the bank (relief funds, housing supports, etc.) so that if a customer had a need they were not able to address, the staff knew where to refer them to. This effort has since expanded to other financial institutions and the working group continues today. Again, one professional at a bank was curious. How can my financial institution support military families?
In the most recent Blue Star Family Survey, Reserve Component Service members reported negative consequences following an activation or deployment (Blue Star Families, 2021). Despite Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USSERRA) protections in place, we know that RC Service members struggle with employment issues. To help solve this, stakeholders in Indiana created a judge’s bench book with USSERRA and other federal protections and provided one to every judge in the state during an annual conference. This allowed for judge’s to easily access relevant information when military-connected individuals came before them.
While these large, systemic changes are helpful, there are also ways for individuals to become involved in effecting change in their states and communities. Think about groups or meetings you attend that are designed to improve your community. Is there a place for military-connected concerns to be addressed? For example, local coalitions looking at child care cost and shortages. Maybe they are also looking at the need for non-traditional hours of care. An individual childcare provider or center may choose to begin offering care for military-connected families during drill weekends or offering extended hours—we know that military service is not 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Are there factories that offer childcare for their shift workers? Is it possible that military-connected families could also access that care? Are their regional grant opportunities to assist families in obtaining quality childcare? Again, by being curious and thinking outside of the box, unique collaborations can be formed to address these challenges.
While these examples are all things done in Indiana, they can easily be modified to fit your state or community’s need. Each community has its own unique assets and challenges. There are most likely efforts already going on in your community. Be curious and seek them out. Many states have state and local groups meeting to address needs in the military population. Finding these groups may take a bit of work---they can be coordinated by a variety of organizations. A good place to start is by contacting your local Soldier and Family Readiness Center or VA Medical Center, as they often participate in community capacity building efforts.
Supporting military connected families can come in many forms—from making meals and lending an ear, to changing how business is done. Finding your fit can come with big rewards - for you and them.
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.
Christy Collette, LMHC, is a Program Associate for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she is coordinating the expansion of the Star Behavioral Health Providers into new states across the nation. SBHP trains civilian behavioral health providers to work with Service members, veterans and their families.
2020 military family lifestyle survey comprehensive report. (n.d.). Retrieved November 1, 2021, from https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/BSF_MFLS_CompReport_EXECSUMMARY.pdf.