Staff Perspective: Observations on the Ever-Changing Military Family Life

Staff Perspective: Observations on the Ever-Changing Military Family Life

April Thompson, LCSW

I have been a Navy spouse for over twenty years. During that time, I have witnessed first-hand the changes experienced by military families in many aspects of their lives. While military families will always experience certain normative stressors, the tools they have to navigate these stressors is ever-changing. Experiences such as moving, frequent separations, deployment, and awareness of risks involved in military service are a common thread among families. However, the way these normative stressors are experienced, understood, and addressed continues to evolve. Taking a step back and reflecting on some of the changes which have occurred over the last 10-20 years may provide a useful reminder why those working with the military need to stay up-to-date and knowledgeable about military family life. Things can change slowly or quickly, but a hallmark of military family life is that things always change.


Separations and deployments are a unique components of military life which set military families apart from non-military families. Having one member (and sometimes two in dual-military marriages) of the family repeatedly leave for four to twelve months every few years can be stressful and disruptive to any family. As technology has improved, the options available to families to communicate with deployed loved ones has increased dramatically.

During one of my husband’s earliest ship deployments in the mid-1990, email was becoming more popular, though few families had access to it the way they do now. For the most part, families mostly relied on “snail mail” to communicate.

Relying on snail mail was sometimes frustrating since one never knew when mail would arrive on or leave the ship. Families would number the envelopes would send to allow them to be read in order since often when mail arrived on the ship, it would be weeks (or months) worth of mail arriving at the same time. The flip side of dealing with that frustration was that it also built anticipation for the letters and packages. Once they arrived, handwritten letters could be read over and over – tangible reminders of messages from home. Letters and packages could contain other sensory reminders of home such as taste, smells, and visual reminders.

If families wanted updates on ship movements, homecoming plans, or other important pieces of information, they could call specific phone numbers (called Care Lines) where someone from the command could leave a recorded message with updates.

Now that there are many different options available for communication depending on where the Service member is physically during the deployment. Besides emails, families may have access to text messaging, Skype, and social media as a way to communicate. While these options create opportunities for “real time” communication, they aren’t always considered more beneficial to either the Service member or the families, but do create options for communication.

Families now have access to general information about a command through military unit Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

All of these methods of communication and information exchange could never have been imagined years ago. They bring opportunities for synchronous communication which have both positive and negative impacts on families and Service members.

Extended family support

Another observed change for families is the amount of formal and informal support provided to extended family members – beyond spouses and children entitled to a military ID card. Twenty years ago, the emphasis for supporting a military family generally was limited to spouses and children of Service members. I remember how awkward it was to be a girlfriend of someone on a ship since you were not included in family support activities. While I don’t have direct experience of this, I also imagine it might have been the same for parents, grandparents, and siblings of Service members. They provide support to the sailors, but were left out of the formal family programs.

In the Navy, that has changed. Now anyone a sailor identifies as his/her “family” can be included in some Family Readiness Groups. The sailor must designate in writing whom from their family they want included, but now it is not uncommon for parents and siblings of sailors to be involved in family support groups.

Waiting on the pier during a ship’s return from deployment looks very different now than it did two decades ago. Back then, most of the people waiting for the ship to return would be spouses and children. Only a few parents of sailors would be there and it was mostly limited to those who were able gain access to the military base without much assistance from others. Today, you will see many extended family members at homecomings. This change recognizes the importance of having loved ones on hand to welcome sailors back from deployments. It also recognizes the valuable support provided by extended (non-ID card holding) family members.

A few years ago, I was told about a website called “Navy for Moms”. This site ( states that it is sponsored and managed by the US Navy and the Navy Recruiting Command as a source for information and connection for parents and loved ones of sailors. Efforts such as this represent a major shift in recognizing the support they both need and provide.

The bottom line is that there should be acknowledgement of the role all family members play in overall military readiness and support.

Family Support Programs

In the 1990s, most of the formal resources and support provided to families were offered at the base/post family support agency. Each branch of the military offered their own version of this, but resources such as counseling, relocation assistance, and deployment support were housed at one location. Since that time, two things have occurred which dramatically changed the support available to families: the emergence of countless websites and internet-based resources as well as recognition that family support is not only a “nice to have,” but is actually critical to military readiness.

First, with the emergence of social media, numerous websites dedicated to military families, and DoD websites, information is now readily available and accessible. Military One Source provides not only web-based resources and information, but also a 24-hour phone number military families can contact for assistance day or night.

Second, researchers as well as behavioral health providers are learning more about the critical role families play not just in individual Service member’s well-being, but in overall military unit readiness. With this understanding, families have increasingly been viewed as partners with military units. Formal training for ombudsmen, key spouses, and family readiness group leaders demonstrates the important role they play in the larger context of the military.

With the increasing recognition and support the military now provides multiple avenues of support not available previously. Hopefully, these programs will translate into a more ready military force. As society changes and as the threats to our military change, military families must adapt and adjust to these changes. What won’t change is the military family’s commitment to supporting and loving their Service members.

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 wocial worker currently working as a Military Behavioral Health Social Worker with the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.