“War demands a price from military families. Sometimes it’s a life, sometimes a limb, sometimes a marriage,” Faye Fiore writes in this week’s Stars and Stripes.
According to the Department of Defense, nearly 2 million children in the U.S. are growing up in military families; an estimated 200,000 have a parent at war at any given time.
The National Military Family Association recently commissioned a RAND study to explore the impact of deployment on children. The study is one of the first to consider how these children are faring academically, socially, and emotionally during an extended period of wartime.
The report reveals that many children from military families impacted by deployment are experiencing above-average levels of emotional and behavioral difficulties. About one-third of the children reported symptoms of anxiety – double the average among civilian families. Older youths and boys reported more difficulties with school and more problem behaviors, such as fighting; greater numbers of younger children and girls reported anxiety symptoms. The study found longer periods of parental deployment were linked to greater difficulties in children’s social and emotional functioning. Older youths experienced greater school- and peer-related difficulties.
Children whose caregivers had better self-reported mental health were better able to cope with the deployment experience both during and after.
Stars and Stripes features the family of Marine Corps Sgt. Tyrone Baugh, sharing the challenges of deployment on his wife and their three young children. Looking back, Bonnie Baugh, 34, realized the first sign of trouble came when their four-year-old daughter, Tatum, refused to come to the phone when Daddy called.
“Mentally, this last year and a half has really affected her,” Bonnie said. “Everything circles back to not being with her dad. It didn’t feel fair to her why she couldn’t call her daddy.”
Tricare, the military’s health insurance system, reported that mental health visits for children under 5 jumped 73 percent between 2005 and 2009.
“The Pentagon offers programs to help young families, but the strains of this war are unique from wars past. The stress of the mission is greater across the board – there are no noncombat assignments in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Fiore writes.
Many soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other visible and invisible wounds of war, bringing additional challenges to family reintegration, parenting, and marriages themselves.
Programs such as the Wounded Warrior Care Project in Augusta, Georgia have become a lifeline for returning veterans and their families. The group organizes teams of dedicated government and community leaders to collaborate, share knowledge and initiatives, and develop best practices to maximize resources and provide support for wounded warriors, veterans and their families.
Last year, in collaboration with the Wounded Warrior Care Project, the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, and Morehouse School of Medicine’s Satcher Health Leadership Institute began offering weekend retreats for couples impacted by combat deployment.
PAIRS President Seth Eisenberg worked with experts from Charlie Norwood and Morehouse to adapt the PAIRS Essentials marriage education program for couples impacted by combat deployment. The success of the program led the VA to sponsor a PAIRS professional training to prepare VA Chaplains, social workers and other behavioral health specialists to continue the retreats in Augusta. The VA San Diego Healthcare System was recently awarded a grant to bring the program to California.
“The challenges these couples face are different than those addressed by traditional programs that focus on enhancing interpersonal communication and promoting the value of marriage,” Eisenberg said. “Helping couples reconnect after combat deployment begins with being able to understand emotions in themselves and each other, confide, deepen empathy, and strengthen attachment and bonding.”
Laurie Ott, Executive Director of the Wounded Warrior Care Project, said the program is working.
“PAIRS is exactly what we were looking for in terms of real relationship skills for combat-returned and wounded warriors and their spouses,” Ott said. “Our survey before and after PAIRS shows a profound impact on both couples’ perception of their relationship and hope for the future … helping our heroes and their families reconnect after combat, and giving them the skills to improve their relationships and communication.”
Fiore reports rates of divorce and child abuse have climbed in the military. “Even in families that appear to be holding up, there is concern over the consequences of interrupting early parent-child bonds, when the service member is gone for a year, home for a year, then gone again.”
“When you marry a Marine, you know what’s going to happen, especially in time of war,” Bonnie Baugh said. “You hope your husband doesn’t have to go, but you know it’s going to happen.”
For the Baugh family and others impacted by combat deployment, the need for parents to actively care for their own mental health needs is a key findings of the RAND report.
Programs developed to address the impact of combat deployment and PTSD that support couples in strengthening attachment, bonding, and family cohesion, are increasingly available through the VA, service organizations, and other networks serving military families.
“We cannot accept that children are paying the price for their parent’s service to our country,” Eisenberg said.