Staff Perspective: Military Families Share Their Experiences During COVID-19

Staff Perspective: Military Families Share Their Experiences During COVID-19

Dr. Jenny Phillips

In her recent Staff Perspective blog, Christy Collette shared the experiences of a National Guard family during the COVID-19 pandemic, including how it affected their children and the impact of the military’s stop movement order on their Service member’s deployment. Many of the conditions that she described are likely applicable to other military families, as well. But, just as each military family is unique, so have been their experiences with COVID-19. In this week’s blog, I will describe more of these unique, and uniquely military, experiences as shared with me by several additional military families. The goal of sharing this information is to give behavioral health providers additional insight into what it has been like to be a military family during the pandemic and highlight the issues and stressors faced by this population.

While it would have been nearly impossible to talk to a truly representative sample of military families for this blog, I was fortunate to be able to get the perspective of five different families. These families varied substantially across several important areas, including their length of military service (from 3 to 20+ years) and their family composition (single and dual-military families), as well as their children’s ages (infants and toddlers through graduating high school seniors). Not surprisingly, experiences with COVID-19 varied across these families. But there were also commonalities, likely attributable at least in part to their shared military experience.

One common theme was a disruption of plans related to the stop movement order issued by the military this past spring. While nearly everyone, regardless of military or non-military status, likely had travel plans interrupted or canceled by the pandemic, the stop movement order was more than a nuisance. It not only disrupted routine travel for military families, but also impacted permanent changes of station (PCSs). PCSs, which require the movement of the Service member and their entire household to their new duty location, are generally planned months in advance with multiple layers of clearances and coordination. Three of the five families I spoke to shared stories of PCS issues ranging from the need to complete significant additional paperwork and clearances (on top of the already substantial forms required for an OCONUS (overseas) move) to the significant financial threat of paying for housing in two locations while being unable to complete the planned move. PCS-ing was not the only important travel disrupted by the order and other travel restrictions though. On a more individual, but not less significant scale, one Service member described multiple direct impacts of the stop movement on their personal and professional life. The inability to travel delayed their ability to intervene during a family crisis, disrupted their capacity to gain training and certification in their professional field, and ultimately impacted such personal issues as family planning. In many of the impacted situations, military families were eventually able to continue with their plans, but not without significant stress and increased levels of effort.

While some impacts of COVID-19, like the military stop movement order, were unique to military families, others echoed those reported by non-military families as well. Another frequently cited impact of COVID-19 was its effects on child development, particularly in young children. This was a pronounced concern for those with toddlers and preschool-aged children. Like many families, including those without military ties, these families shared stories about disruptions to their children’s education and social development when they experienced preschool and daycare shutdowns. Parents reported that a lack of outside experiences and interaction with peers contributed to a range of behavior changes including behavioral regressions, increased tantrums and outbursts, and difficult attachments to parents and caregivers. While not unique to the military, these families related the sudden move to reduced practice and telehealth as problematic; reduced access to special services and specialized health assessments and care as a result of COVID-19 restrictions impeded the diagnosis and support of developmental and medical issues in multiple members of these families.

There was also a range of military-specific situations, caused or impacted by COVID-19, shared with me. In one family, the Service member held a high-level clearance and performed a job that could not be accomplished through telework. This resulted in multiple schedule changes and ultimately rapid return to working in-person at their job site and increased risk of exposure for the family. Another family shared that their Service member had officially retired from their military career just before the COVID-19 outbreak. They spoke of how the stress of out-processing from the military, always a busy and complicated process, was exacerbated by the legitimate possibility of a recall to service due to the pandemic. While this ultimately did not happen, the uncertainty made an already stressful situation more difficult. The same family shared the extreme disappointment of their teen missing out on so many milestones of their senior year of high school (prom, graduation, etc.) due to the pandemic. After the military experience of multiple moves, many different schools, and the loss of friends to distance over the course of their education, they reported feeling robbed of the potential for one final “normal” experience.

Although many of the stories shared with me described negative impacts on military families, there were some unique benefits to being a military family during COVID-19 as well. Families, especially those with older children, credited the resilience bred of being a military child with helping to prepare their children to be flexible and “roll with the punches” of COVID-19. Military children are veterans in their own rights of being in less-than-ideal situations and finding ways to make the best of the unexpected. While their prior experiences didn’t prevent COVID-19-related distress, they did report that it helped them to cope with it. In another unique military set of circumstances, one family shared that their OCONUS assignment actually presented some advantage compared to their US-stationed counterparts. While the US struggled with rampant COVID-19 outbreaks and long-term restrictions in the spring and summer, this military family was able to more quickly return to some level of normalcy when the country they were living in successfully controlled transmission more quickly than the US.

As we have entered what some refer to as “Phase 2” or the “second wave” of COVID-19 and the number of cases and rates of transmission have once again risen, behavioral health care needs are also likely to increase again. It is necessary as providers that we are aware of the general mental health impacts of the pandemic, but also important to remember that our military clients and their families may be experiencing unique situations and especially high levels of stress at this time. While the stories shared by these five families will not describe every military family, their experiences do provide some specific and important examples of what behavioral health providers should consider when assessing and treating this population.

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.

Jenny Phillips, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director of Evaluation for the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD. She would like to thank all of the families who took the time to provide input for this blog.