It was the summer of 2007 and I was in the homestretch of planning a wedding to my best friend, an active duty psychologist for the U.S. Navy stationed at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed Military Medical Center). We had chosen November 10th for our wedding date. I loved the idea of a fall wedding and my husband, also a former Marine, assured me that he would never forget our anniversary if we got married on the Marine Corps birthday. We had carefully planned our ceremony to include and celebrate the people closest to us, particularly my three soon-to-be stepchildren, ages 16, 12, and 10. Our wedding would not just be a day to celebrate our marriage, but also the forging of a new family. My fiancé had primary physical custody of the children and they would spend the vast majority of their time living with us.
Those of you who are veterans of military life have likely already guessed what happened next. In mid-July, my fiancé received word of a “possible” deployment. Within two weeks, it was no longer just a possibility and by mid-August he had orders to deploy to in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He’d be leaving at the end of September and would be in Iraq well ahead of our November wedding date. While the deployment would not be long, we were confronted with some difficult decisions that would affect our family in his absence.
The stressors we were facing as a blended military family were not uncommon. Families that incorporate biological and non-biological parents and siblings have become much more prevalent in the last half-century. Although statistics on stepfamilies and blended families in the military are difficult to find, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2009, nearly 16% of all U.S. children lived with a step-parent, step-sibling, and/or half-sibling. This statistic does not take into account children who may spend time with another parent due to visitation or a divided custody schedule, so the proportion of children experiencing blended families is likely much higher. With divorce and remarriage rates similar to the civilian population, military families frequently fall into this complex category as well.
In many ways, the military lifestyle is very inclusive and accepting of non-traditional and blended families. For example, the majority of military benefits, including TRICARE coverage and the option to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to dependents, cover step-children as well as biological children. As a behavioral health provider, your services are as applicable to a step-child as a biological child of a military parent. Unfortunately, there are also additional stressors and difficult decisions that being a parent or child in a military blended family can introduce, particularly around the issues of relocation and deployment. Should the Service member prioritize an assignment that would greatly benefit their career even if it would put them hundreds or thousands of miles from their children’s primary residence? Would relocating with their step-children to another part of the country or overseas initiate a custody battle with the non-custodial parent or incur significant expenses for visitation?
Parents might also face difficult decisions regarding temporary deployments, as was the case in our situation. My fiancé received his official orders the week that school started in our county. His ex-wife lived in a different state meaning that a change in custody, even if only temporary, would mean new schools, separation from friends, and additional stress for the children. We also didn’t know if I would be able to spend time with the children while he was away, something that was important to both of us. Frankly, we also worried about the likelihood of them returning to live with us if custody was transferred to their mother during deployment. At the time of my fiancé’s deployment, there were no state or federal laws in place where we lived to guarantee he would regain primary physical custody upon his return. As if the stress of an impending deployment to a war-zone was not enough, these are the types of decisions and situations faced by military parents and dependents with custody concerns.
Biological parents are not the only ones affected by these situations of course. When a Service member deploys, the other parent or spouse often assumes additional family duties and responsibilities in their absence. This is true of step-parents as well. Even brand new step-parents, such as myself. We made the decision to “do the paperwork” and get married nearly 4 months early to be sure that I could legally serve as guardian and make decisions for my step-children during my husband’s deployment. Less than a month after getting married I was the primary custodial parent for my three step-children, negotiating teen and pre-teen emotions, visitation schedules, and my own reactions to my husband’s deployment during a very stressful time for all of us.
The good news is that we all made it through intact and the children now are grown and moved out or in college. One is even married to a Navy sailor – apparently our deployment experience didn’t completely turn her off of the military lifestyle! Many families in our situation would benefit greatly from behavioral health support and intervention when confronting issues related to their blended families, including custody and deployments. I, most definitely, used my knowledge of coping skills and stress management extensively during this time and beyond. When working with military families, please consider the benefits to both you and your clients of finding out more about their family structure and the potential stressors and benefits that it likely confers. You may also want to familiarize yourself with some of the resources available to military blended families and Service members with custody concerns, such as the articles from Military One Source that are linked below.
Military OneSource article, Blended Families – Resources for Strong Military Families - http://www.militaryonesource.mil/health-wellness/keeping-your-family-strong?content_id=271522
Military OneSource article, Child Custody Concerns for Members of the Military - http://www.militaryonesource.mil/legal?content_id=269192
Jennifer M. Phillips is the program evaluator for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she coordinates and carries out program evaluation efforts to assess the progress and effectiveness of EBP trainings and other CDP programs.
 Kreider, Rose M. and Renee Ellis, “Living Arrangements of Children: 2009,” Current Population Reports, P70-126, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2011.
 As of July 1 2008, the state of Virginia now provides for the granting of temporary custody changes and the designation of a step-parent or family member for visitation rights during a military deployment, courtesy of the Virginia Military Parents Equal Protection Act. Many other states have similar legislation in place, or pending.