Military Families and Deployment

By Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer

Since the US adopted an all-volunteer military force in 1973, there have been changes in the demographic makeup of the military, including a steady increase in the proportion of married service members. While traditionally our military force consisted of service members who were largely young and single, today the number of military family members outnumbers the number of active duty military members. Currently 1.4 million service members make up the active duty armed forces, while there are close to 2 million family members of active duty military personnel, including spouses, children, and adult dependents (2007 Demographics Profile of the Military Community, DMDC, 2007).

Military spouses, like military members themselves, come from every walk of life, but as a demographic group they can be characterized as predominately young. Over half (55%) of active duty service members are married, and a significant percentage (43%) have children. Since nearly half of the active duty force is under age 26, this means there is a large number of young military families with children.

As of June 2008, there have been 1.8 million deployments, and in over 1 million of them the service member left behind a family member (Quality of Life Review, DOD, 2009). While family separations are an intrinsic part of military life, wartime deployments can be periods of potential stress for military families. Despite the inherently stressful nature of these separations, family resilience to deployments is generally the rule, not the exception. Some families, however, are at increased vulnerability during deployments. An awareness of potential risk factors can aid providers in identifying those families who may be in need of additional support and/or services during a deployment.

  • Young families: Young service members are often newly married, beginning new families, and are supporting extended families for the first time. In addition, these families may lack the life skills necessary for managing stress in a proactive manner
  • First deployment: Families are more vulnerable if they have never experienced a military separation before, as they may not know how to navigate the military system in order to get their needs met.
  • History of poor adapting skills: Those individuals with a history of difficulty adapting to change are at increased risk for problems during a deployment, as changes in routine are an inherent part of the deployment experience.
  • Additional stressors: An accumulation of stressors can be predictive for difficulties during deployment, as these stressors can be compounded in their intensity during a deployment. Examples of such stressors include: a spouse who is pregnant while the service member is deployed, a foreign spouse who is new to American culture, or special needs children in a family.

As important as an ability to recognize these “red flags,” is an awareness of resiliency factors. Resiliency factors are those attributes that have been found to promote healthy functioning during deployments. Nurturing and promoting these characteristics can help families decrease their level of difficulty during a deployment.

  • Family readiness: Preparedness for the separation, on both a practical and emotional level, is a primary predictor of successful coping during deployment.
  • Active coping: A willingness to engage in active coping (e.g., emailing, sending letters, staying busy) has been found to function as a mediator for stress.
  • Social support: The more families are able to connect to sources of social support, the better able they are to manage the stresses of deployment separation.
  • Optimism, self-reliance, flexible gender roles: These characteristics are all predictive of successful coping during a deployment.

Regardless of a family’s level of experience with deployment separations, a deployment can be an emotional experience for those left behind. While there is no “one” emotional experience that is completely representative of all spouses or children experiencing a deployment, the Emotional Cycle of Deployment (Logan, 1987; Pincus et al., 2005) describes different emotional stages that generally occur during the deployment cycle. An understanding of these stages, and the emotional challenges that occur during each of them, can help normalize the deployment experience for families, which in turn can increase positive coping during a deployment.

Pre-Deployment: This stage begins with the announcement of deployment and ends when the service member physically leaves; it is generally characterized by a fluctuation between denial and anticipation of loss. Tips for proactive ways families can prepare for an upcoming separation include: agreeing on a plan for communicating with the deployed service member, making a plan for being alone (e.g., setting personal goals), starting to build a support system, and sharing feelings/concerns about the upcoming deployment. It is important for couples and families to remember to spend time together before the deployment without the distraction of “to do lists.” It is also important for children to have individual time with a deploying parent in the days leading up to a deployment.

Deployment: This stage occurs while the service member is deployed away from home. It begins with the service member’s departure and lasts until the service member returns home. As this stage begins, family members must learn to adjust to new responsibilities and new routines, as the deployment progresses they often find themselves developing resiliency and increased confidence. The last month of the deployment is often marked by excitement and intense anticipation of the service member’s return home. Ways of coping during this stage include: strengthening the support system, keeping busy and staying active, and making plans to break up the time (a useful technique to prevent feeling overwhelmed). Children need consistency and routine, as well as individual attention from the non-deployed parent. It is also important, however, that newly “single” parents have alone time without their children in order to recharge. As the homecoming nears, it is important for spouses to discuss plans and expectations about what the reunion will look like (e.g., big party vs. quiet celebration) in order to avoid potential hurt feelings and disappointment.

Post-Deployment: This stage begins with the service member’s arrival home and can last for 3-6 months. It is common for spouses to experience myriad emotions during this time, including apprehension, excitement, worry, exhaustion, and uncertainty. It is important to remember that the process of reintegration may take several weeks or months. Both spouses have experienced changes while separated, and they both may feel unneeded or unwanted. The key to successfully negotiating this stage is open communication. It is also important to avoid playing “one-up” games, as no one ever winds up a winner in the “who had it worse” competition – the experience of deployment is difficult for both partners in different ways. It often takes time to negotiate new roles and routines and it is important for families to be patient, to take things slowly, and to not try to force quick changes. It is also not uncommon for children to test limits when a deployed parent returns; consistency and limit setting with children during this time of change will help them negotiate this transition smoothly.