At some point, we all need help as we navigate military life. Military families must be prepared for frequent moves, separations from Service members during deployments, and other challenges which arise when living far away from friends and family. Regardless of branch of service, physical location or circumstance, there is usually a person or resource which exists to assist with most situations which arise. The programs and resources available are vast, and they play a critical role in supporting the resilience of Service members and their families.
This has not always been the case. While it may feel like these programs have been around forever, the reality is that these programs have been evolving over time. Today there is recognition among military leaders that family support is critical to military readiness and retention. This view of the importance of the military family’s role in supporting warriors has not always been embraced. However, it is interesting to examine how perspectives have changed and how programs have evolved to meet families’ needs.
History of Military Family Support Programs
In the years before World War II, there was little focus on support for military families. In fact, families were seen as unwelcome distractions especially for young enlisted military members, who were discouraged from getting married. In a White Paper written in 1983, then Army Chief of Staff, General John Wickham traced the history of the military’s relationship with families. He indicated that as late as 1942, draftees into the military could be married, but those who enlisted could not. Reflecting this view, there were few programs offering support. Housing was rarely provided for families and no agencies existed to help families with “adjustment, wartime separations and emotional burdens.”
During this period, addressing financial hardships became the main area of support provided. Programs offering financial assistance such as Army Emergency Relief and the Navy/Marine Corp Relief Societies emerged. According to the White Paper, these programs were an important step forward for the military to “take care of its own” without having to resort to public charities or welfare. Other prominent programs providing important services during this period included the United Service Organizations (USO) and the Red Cross, both of which are still supporting the military and their families today.
In the 1960s, things started to change. By this time, more and more Service members were married and family members actually outnumbered military members within the Department of Defense. Recognition of who could be considered a “dependent” expanded as well. A now-famous 1973 Supreme Court Case (Frontiero vs. Richardson) opened the door for that change. Prior to that time male Service members could receive additional pay and benefits, such as medical care and housing, for their female spouses. However, the same was not true for female Service members. That changed with the 1973 court case which required female Service members receive the same benefits for their male “dependents” as the male Service members. Also, during the 1970s, family issues were recognized as central to the success of what was now an all-volunteer military.
By the 1980s, all services had created community and family support centers which offered more standardized services to address things like deployment, emotional stressors, and relocation. These support centers are still in existence today, but the services they provide have significantly evolved over time to address the changing needs of the families they support.
The number of programs and services available to military families has grown exponentially since the 1980s. Family support centers have responded to changing needs and new programs have been created for many specific groups, such as for new parents and families with exceptional/special needs to name a few. In addition to base/post centers, the military also provides counseling and information and referral services through Military One Source. The availability of this 24-hour a day service ensures families can utilize them anytime, which is especially critical for families living overseas and in remote locations.
Beyond just asking families directly what they need, the military now has formal and informal ways to identify what is needed. Reports such as the annual Blue Star Family Survey and groups such as the Military Family Readiness Council provide important feedback to leadership and guide program and policy development.
From recent military spouse surveys, two issues emerged leading to important program development - spouse employment and the needs of families as Service members transition from active to Veteran status. First, while spouse employment is not a new issue, it continues to be a challenging one requiring a multi-faceted approach. In the annual Blue Star Families Survey, the challenges associated with finding a job, maintaining a professional license and/or securing reliable child care continue to be listed as stressors for families. The Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) and the Spouse Employment and Career Opportunities (MySECO) go well beyond resume assistance and offer a range of services to help spouses with all aspects of their career journeys.
Second, although there has been significant focus on the challenges Service members face as they transition out of the military, spouses and families are also seeking assistance navigating this period. A recently developed program called the Military Spouse Transition Program (MySTeP) aims to provide support at all stages of the military family life cycle with a special focus on the transition out of the military.
Despite a history of ambivalence towards families, today there is no doubt about the military’s recognition of the important role families play in maintaining a strong and ready force. Supporting families is understood to be key to helping Service members maintain operational readiness. The resilience of military families can be enhanced by ensuring they have the tools and supports needed to remain flexible, connected and informed.
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.
April Thompson, LCSW, is a clinical social worker currently working as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer at the CDP at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.