Staff Perspective: The Deployment Life Study

Staff Perspective: The Deployment Life Study

While reading Dr. Brim’s recent 5-year retrospective of the CDP’s blog, I was reminded that back in 2014 I’d written a blog post summarizing the RAND report on the methodology and baseline sample of the Deployment Life Study.  The Deployment Life Study is a longitudinal study launched in 2009 that was designed to look at the antecedents, correlates, and consequences of family readiness across the deployment cycle (where family readiness was defined as the state of “being prepared to effectively navigate the challenges of daily living experienced in the unique context of military service”).  The results from this study were actually published about a year ago (it’s amazing how time flies!), so I thought this would be a great opportunity to take a deeper look at the results of the study.

The Deployment Life Study used stratified random sampling to identify 2,724 deployable married Service members, spouses, and children (aged 11-18).  Up to three participants per family were followed throughout the deployment cycle (pre-, during, and post-deployment) and were surveyed every four months for three years.  The study design allowed researchers to examine how military families changed or remained stable across each phase of the deployment cycle, as well as to see how they compared with matched military families that didn’t experience a deployment during the study.

A wide range of variables were assessed, including marital satisfaction, family functioning, child and teen well-being, and psychological/behavioral health, to name a few.  So much data was collected that it’s hard to discuss all of it (I highly recommend taking a look at the actual report, which can be found on the RAND Corporation website), but for the purposes of this blog I plan to provide a snapshot of the outcomes in these areas.

Researchers found that couples became less satisfied with their marriage across the deployment cycle (marital satisfaction declined during the deployment phase for both Service members and spouses).  These changes, however, didn’t differ significantly from the changes observed during the same time period in matched couples who didn’t deploy.  In other words, despite changes that occurred in marital satisfaction during the deployment cycle, there was no evidence that the marriages of these couples were any different from what they would have been if there hadn’t been a deployment.  The researchers also found that for spouses, more frequent communication during a deployment predicted greater marital satisfaction post-deployment.

The most common theme regarding military families that emerged from this study is that they are resilient.  Despite challenges experienced during the cycle of deployment, family relationships and other outcomes generally returned to baseline levels when the Service member returned home.  There was generally no impact of deployment on children and teens, but there were a few notable exceptions.  In those families experiencing a deployment, spouses reported more child difficulties (specifically emotional conduct and peer problems) when compared to matched families, and teens reported worse family cohesion and lower quality relationships with the non-deployed parent.

In regards to psychological and behavioral health, there was no overall significant effect of deployment.  Findings suggest, however, that Service members’ exposure to traumatic events during deployment (rather than the separation itself) brought about any negative outcomes associated with deployment.

One of the strengths of this study is its prospective design.  Most of the existing research on military families generally relies on retrospective reports of deployment experiences, which potentially run the risk of exaggerating the effects of deployments.  Another strength is that data was collected from multiple family members within the same families.  There are, as always, some limitations to the study.  First, data collection from the Deployment Life Study occurred between 2011-2015, by which time the period of peak deployments had passed.  Second, the families included in the Deployment Life Study had generally already experienced a deployment; thus, these results may not generalize to families experiencing their first military deployment.  Additionally, since the focus of the study was on military families, the findings may not accurately represent the experiences of single Service members or single-parent families.  Despite these limitations, I believe that the Deployment Life study contributes significantly to our understanding of military family readiness, and I look forward to seeing additional longitudinal research with military families in the future.

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.​

Reference: Meadows, S.O., Tanielian, T., & Karney, B.R. (2016). The deployment life study: Longitudinal analysis of military families across the deployment cycle. (RAND Document No. RR-1388-A/OSD). Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation.

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D. is the Lead, Military Families & CBT for Depression at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. She joined the CDP in 2009 as a deployment behavioral health psychologist at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.​