Staff Perspective: Military Family Resilience and COVID-19

Staff Perspective: Military Family Resilience and COVID-19

Resilience in military families is the norm. As the effects of the pandemic continue to be felt, and in many cases amplified, the need for all of us to adjust to changes, sometimes on a daily basis, is greater than ever before. Just as we adjust to one set of guidelines around physical distancing, the target has moved again. It is hard to keep up. The rules around social contact and quarantine sometimes change daily.

Even in the few days I have been working on this blog, things in my state have changed. The numbers of positive cases have skyrocketed over the past two weeks. My high school-aged son was moved from all in-person classes to virtual learning with less than 24 hours notice. The state has put in place plans for a second lock down once numbers reach a certain point—and I say "once," not "if," because at this point it seems inevitable.

This need for this amount of flexibility is not new to military families. As we know, orders can be changed at the last minute, Reserve Component troops can be mobilized with only hours notice, and return dates are changed. One can argue that this resiliency has helped military families adjust to the ever-changing landscape resulting from COVID-19 more easily than their civilian counterparts. Military kids are used to new learning environments. They are used to being physically separated from friends as their families PCS. They are used to celebrating holidays and birthdays away from extended family.

I had the opportunity to interview a National Guard family after COVID began. Their soldier was TDY to Washington, D.C. He would be there for one year and the decision was made, as they had done before, for the family would remain in their home state. Plans were made for once-a-month visits. The spouse would travel to D.C. every other month to have time together as a couple. Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly a travel ban was in place. The assignment was changed due to COVID-19. Travel home was not allowed, and the Service member was working remotely from an apartment in D.C., away from family.

While the family was disappointed and didn’t understand why their soldier could not return home as others had done, they adjusted. The kids play Xbox with their soldier, share memes and videos via text, and talk on the phone daily. The family has experienced a CONUS assignment before, but this is different. This assignment is more similar to the combat deployment they experienced two years ago, but is emotionally more taxing.

When talking to the teens about what they wish civilians understood about having a parent in the military, the 16-year-old stated if her dad had a civilian job where remote work was required, he would be at home and get to wake up every day to his family. Instead, they utilize a variety of communication methods and wait until the military grants them permission for travel. She trusts that he is safe (because she knows he is trained to take care of himself) and excited to be able to see him.

Being a National Guard dependent allows her a unique opportunity to participate on a NG Teen Council in her home state. The Teen Council allows for NG teens to connect with others around the state and to develop programming for all NG teens in the state. COVID-19 has also forced this group to shift their work for this year. Social interactions occur online more than ever before and the group is concerned about an increase in online bullying. They created an online anti-bullying campaign to help address this. They are tweaking traditional activities and are holding an online “spirit week” where teens dress their pets and post pictures. The council is providing online educational opportunities for all audiences (the bully, the victim, and the bystander). Again, this group of teens understands the need for flexibility during this pandemic and have adjusted their activities to the current situation. These activities along with others will allow military teens around the state to stay connected.

Civilian families can benefit from the lessons learned from military families across the generations. Creating new traditions, staying connected with love ones through long separations, and major shifts in social networks are all skills military families learn early in military service. Many civilian families are experiencing these challenges for the first time. Military Onesource has the following article that provides practical tips to help families cope:

For civilians, take a page out of the military family skills book and learn from those who have learned how to thrive in challenging times. For our military families, we admire your strength and resiliency more than ever before. Thanks for paving the way and sharing your wisdom!

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, MA, 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.