Staff Perspective: Family Well-Being During the Military-to-Veteran Transition

Staff Perspective: Family Well-Being During the Military-to-Veteran Transition

April Thompson, LCSW

Often in the military, we are taught the concept of creating a “new normal” following significant disruptions such as those related to a move, a military deployment, or other event impacting the whole family. Focusing on a “new normal” invites the family to view the situation as something requiring a period of adjustment. One aspect of military life that every family will experience is the transition out of the military. We all know it is coming. However, there is a great deal of variability in how families prepare for and respond to this event.

Last year, my spouse transitioned out of the military after three decades on active duty. Even though I was excited about no longer having to move every few years, and for the opportunity to finally plant deep roots in a community, it was also a very destabilizing experience for me and my family. My children said it felt strange being outside of the military system since it was a large part of their identity throughout their whole lives. Besides the transition out of the military, our family decided to move to a new state across the country to begin a new adventure. Literally everything was different. For a while, we all were lost because although everything was “new”, nothing felt “normal”.

According to the US Department of Labor, approximately 200,000 military members transition out of the military each year, and it is estimated that half of these members are married (Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, 2023). Understanding and meeting the needs of these families can be a challenge since they can have such a range of experiences. In the last few years, more attention has been paid to offering support to the whole family and not just the service member. But why is this transition so hard for many families, and what can be done to ease it?

One of the first quantitative studies to focus on military spouses during the military-to-veteran transition (Correy et al., 2022) sought to answer this question. The study utilized survey responses from over 4,000 spouses who are part of the Millennium Cohort Family Study. Researchers wanted to see how spouses fared during this critical time. Results provided some clues about the ways the transition impacted spouses since they were able to directly compare transitioning spouses to those who were not transitioning. Of note was the fact that spouses of transitioning service members experienced more PTSD symptoms as well as a decline in marriage quality. However, they also experienced significantly less work-family conflict. Adjustment experiences were found to be particularly challenging for families earlier in their military career and those with more young children. Protective factors identified were social support, feelings of personal mastery, and financial resources.

Supporting the unique needs of spouses is critical since they are often a key stabilizing force within the military family. For providers working with military spouses, being aware of the challenges and offering tailored resources can be very helpful. One spouse-specific resource to share was recently highlighted by my colleague, Dr. Lisa French in a recent blog describing the “Stepping Beyond” program which offers tools to assist spouses with navigating this transition. Another program that I attended was the spouse transition workshop through the Commit Foundation which offered modules on adjusting to new identities, communication patterns, and exploring values – all topics I found incredibly helpful.

Finally, we also know the military-to-veteran transition impacts children as well. Including them when working with a family is another important component in supporting overall family well-being. The Military Child Education Coalition and Sesame Street Military Family Programs both offer training and resources specifically tailored to individuals working with children in these transitioning families. Also, for military families who have a child with special needs, Military OneSource provides a range of specifically designed resources.

If you or someone you know is preparing to go through the military-to-veteran transition, it is important to recognize the range of emotions and reactions that can all be part of this normative but difficult process. Offering support and resources to the family can go a long way towards helping them have a successful experience. As for my family, we are still figuring things out, but my youngest child has decided to join the military. I am now entering a new phase of my military life journey as both a veteran spouse and a soon-to-be military parent – another “new normal” to adjust to.

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 the Associate Director of Special Projects for the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland.

Corry, N. H., Joneydi, R., McMaster, H. S., Williams, C. S., Glynn, S., Spera, C., & Stander, V.
A. (2022). Families serve too: military spouse well-being after separation from active-duty
service. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 35(5), 501–517.
Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (2023) 2022 demographics profile of the
military community
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