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Military Life: Then and Now

Have you ever wondered if other milspouses struggle with the same military life experiences as you? How do your concerns compare to the concerns of other families? When using military or civilian services, have you caught yourself wishing they understood you better?

Here’s your chance. Help Blue Star Families by taking their 2019 survey here. The survey deadline is June 21.

Blue Star Families, founded in 2009, has a simple mission: to strengthen military families by connecting them to their communities. One of the best ways to do that is by finding out what the most important issues are for service members and their families by asking the source. The survey is created with the help of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, an organization that works with multiple entities, both government and private, to aid transitioning service members and their families.

About the Survey

Each year, BSF and IVMF release a survey called the Military Family Lifestyle Survey that offers a detailed analysis of what service members and their families experience in military life. The annual survey is often used to inform political leaders, local communities, and philanthropic organizations of the needs of service members and their families. While the survey has evolved over the years to encompass multiple aspects of military life, it generally asks questions related to demographics, top concerns, spouse employment, mental health, operational tempo, community support, and more.

But, the survey is only as good as the number of people who take it.

June 21 is the last day the 2019 survey will be open.

The very first survey appeared in 2009.

Then: 2009

What was going on in the world then? The United States was suffering from the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, which is now often referred to as the Great Recession. The unemployment rate was 10.2%, according to Time magazine. The word “bailout” frequently appeared in headlines and helped save car manufacturers and financial institutions. We were eight years into Afghanistan and six years into Iraq. The surge in Iraq had ended the year before. The focus was back on Afghanistan with changes in military strategy. October was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in combat since the war began. Iran’s election results were questionable and extremism in Pakistan was breaking down the country, potentially further destabilizing an already unsteady region of the world. The U.S. was debating a new health care law while swine flu was moving swiftly throughout the nation. A shooter rampaged on Fort Hood in November killing 13 people, 12 of whom were service members, and wounding 30.

The first survey, conducted by BSF, collected data from 2,796 military family members, and if you’re familiar with BSF and their survey, this probably sounds like a low number. Keep in mind that this was only the first one. Of those surveyed, 66% were spouses and 17% were service members.

Here’s how those individuals responded:

Unsurprisingly, with all that was going on in the U.S. and around the world, the top five national issues respondents said most concerned or affected them, in order of importance, were:

  1. The economy (25% said it was the most important issue)
  2. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (25% said it was the most important issue)
  3. Veterans services
  4. Education
  5. Health care

Terrorism was ranked number 6.

Respondents were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with installation services. Here are the five services respondents felt needed the most improvement:

  1. Base housing availability (16% said it was the most important issue)
  2. Base housing quality (16% said it was the most important issue)
  3. Mental health services
  4. Military health care system access
  5. Child Development Centers and School Age Services

Military life issues are a major part of the surveys each year. Respondents were asked what military life issues they were most concerned about. Here are their answers:

  1. Military pay and benefits (23% said it was the most important issue)
  2. Effect of deployments on kids
  3. Moral and emotional support for families of deployed service members
  4. Post-deployment family readjustment
  5. PTSD/combat stress/TBI

Those results also aren’t so surprising based on the events of 2009: an economic recession, years of increased U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and one of the deadliest months on record for service members.

Eight percent of those who responded said their service member spent more than 37 months deployed since Sept. 11, 2001. The majority of respondents (29%) said their service member spent 13-24 months deployed since 9/11.

So how does this all compare to the most recent survey?

Now: 2018

The 2018 survey results contained the responses of more than 10,000 people. Sixty-four percent of those respondents were spouses of active-duty service members. The survey was designed by the Department of Applied Research at BSF, in collaboration with IVMF at Syracuse University.

Unlike 2009, 2018 was a relatively calm news year for overseas U.S. military involvement. Iraq hosted its first election since ousting the Islamic State. North Korea began talks of denuclearization. Domestically, it was a bit different. U.S. troops were sent to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Concerns about dilapidated military housing were making headlines. There were discussions of changing the Feres Doctrine, which would allow service members to sue the military for medical mistakes. The federal government experienced a partial shutdown, and while pay and benefits were protected for service members, it wasn’t so for federal employees.

When service members were frequently deploying in the Global War on Terror leading up to 2009, the concerns shifted to the aftermath of homecoming, the safety of those overseas, and the impact on families. In 2018, with fewer service members deploying, the focus was on fixing the problems here at home.

Unlike the 2009 survey, the 2018 survey breaks down responses by military affiliation, offering a more comprehensive look at the needs of all those associated with the military. Here are the top issues based on military affiliation:

While pay and benefits and the impact of deployment on children remain a top concern since 2009, most other concerns now deal with domestic issues specifically related to military life. Here are some major takeaways from the 2018 survey:

Impact of Service on Well-Being

1. For the first time in the history of the the Military Family Lifestyle Survey, financial stress was the most common reason that military spouses feel stress. That may not surprise you, especially when considering unexpected expenses for moving, spouse unemployment or underemployment, and lack of available, reliable child care. And of course, there’s always the concern of cuts to military pay and benefits, which affect a family’s bottom line.

2. Spouse employment is still a problem. Most of those affiliated with the military community know that gainful employment for spouses is usually low, despite many spouses wanting to work. Seventy percent of millennials (those age 37 and younger) said they believe that two incomes are vital to a military family’s well-being. The 68% of family respondents over the age of 38 agreed. Thirty percent of spouses indicated they were not employed, but actively seeking employment. But, being employed shouldn’t necessarily count as a major marker—56% of working spouses said they were underemployed. Frequent relocation was the most cited reason for underemployment.

3. Military children may face challenges due to deployments, which include separation anxiety or sleeping problems (57%), behavioral problems (53%), reintegration challenges when the service member returns (30%), lower academic performance (18%), and depression (16%). For others, 24% said their children experienced personal growth, 11% had increased pride or confidence, and 14% said they saw no change. If the non-deployed spouse faced mental health struggles like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, the child was more likely to have a negative response as well. Respondents (54%) suggested that more support services are needed for dependents, specifically services that will help parents manage their emotions to help their children cope.

4. Relocation stresses service members the most, particularly when it comes to out-of-pocket moving expenses and child care searches. Respondents reported moving an average of four times, and 31% reported spending more than $1,000 that they’d never get back. The first year following a relocation tends to be the hardest finding child care—79% of female service members and 65% of male service members reported problems, but those numbers appeared to decrease after a year.

5. Health care helps with retention rates, and respondents would like to see improvements. Improving appointment availability and offering fully covered alternative health care options were the top cited improvements. Most military family members (86%) reported that they were satisfied with their coverage, the quality of providers (73%), and the quality of care (78%). There was a lot of support for alternative care from spouses of active-duty members (32%), veterans (25%), and veteran spouses (37%).

6. Military life comes with unique experiences that benefit both those who serve and their families. While benefits are a huge reason service members remain in the service, they also often feel proud of what they’ve done. Ninety-six percent of veteran respondents were proud of their accomplishments during their time in uniform, and 95% said that their service had a positive impact on their lives. Here are some other statistics regarding civic involvement:

The volunteer numbers are a positive sign. Those associated with the military are often involved in their civilian communities more than their military communities. According to BSF, those who volunteer “are found to experience health benefits including longevity, mobility, and mental health. For those seeking employment, those who volunteer have a 27% higher likelihood of finding a job after being out of work than non-volunteers.”

The travel opportunities offered due to relocation also have improved benefits in personal relationships and well-being, according to the survey.

Finding a Sense of Belonging

1. Many struggle with belonging in their civilian communities, despite feeling connected to them. BSF defined a sense of belonging as “a feeling of being accepted, included, respected in, and contributing to a setting, or anticipating the likelihood of developing this feeling.” Almost half of military spouses (48%) said they did not feel a sense of belonging to their local community, and they’re more affected, regardless of age, gender, and stress levels, than service members or veterans. That, however, changed depending on the amount of time in one place. Military spouses often felt more at home in their civilian communities the longer they lived in one place, but then had less of a sense of belonging with their military community.

2. Veterans reported that they struggle with leaving the military, with 45% saying it’s a key transition challenge and 47% feeling a loss of purpose. Finding a job can help redirect that purpose and make veterans feel valued in their communities; however, the longer it took veterans to find work after leaving the military, the less they felt connected to their civilian community. Full- and part-time employed veterans felt more connected. This may mean veterans need to be better prepared for transition.

3. Schools with support for military life help military families feel more connected to their communities. School changes are a tough part of military life and sometimes why families choose to geo-bach (28%). Of the 54% of military children who are school-aged, 84% of them attend public schools. The biggest way schools can support military kids (and in turn, military families), is by understanding military life, complying with the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, and providing free resources to fill educational gaps, if needed.

Military Service and Improvements

1. Service recommendation is murky. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they would recommend service to their sons, while only 39% said they would recommend service to their daughters. Those who were hesitant to suggest service to daughters said safety improvements would need to be made before they would recommend enlisting or commissioning.

2. Honesty related to military life may be the best way to increase the public’s understanding of military service. The military community is fairly united in the belief that the American public doesn’t understand military service—only 18% felt the public actually understands what the military community experiences. Today, 15% of young adults in the U.S. have a connection to a service member or veteran in their family—it was 40% in 1995.

3. Male and female service members have different top concerns. Female service members were more likely to cite military family quality of life as their top issue of concern compared to male service members, and 25% of female veterans said that a lack of child care during their career made them feel the most stressed compared to 5% of male veterans. Female veterans were more likely to leave the military at a younger age than male service members. Female service members are also more likely to join for education benefits rather than retirement benefits.

4. The DoD can improve service member quality of life in three ways: Better housing options and an increase in BAH, more military career control, and a reduction in OPTEMPO. Of the 66% who chose to live on an installation during military service, 33% said they were unhappy with the experience. Sixty-nine percent of respondents were unhappy with OPTEMPO, saying that it created too much stress to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Future: 2019

We won’t have the results for the 2019 survey until later this year. Get the word out to your fellow military spouses and any active, Reserve, National Guard, and veteran service members and their families to help round out the survey. The more individuals who respond, the greater look BSF and IVMF get at who we are and what we need as a military community.

All photos are courtesy of Blue Star Families.

Author

  • Sarah Peachey

    Sarah Peachey is a journalist from southern Pennsylvania currently living in the Southeast. Previous adventures sent her to Fort Polk, Louisiana; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; Fort Meade, Maryland; Hohenfels, Germany; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and Fort Stewart, Georgia. She lives with her husband of more than 10 years, three children, one very spoiled Dachshund, and a cat who leaves a dusting of white fur on just about everything. She began a career in journalism with The Fort Polk Guardian, an Army installation newspaper, winning three state awards for her work. Her work has appeared on MilSpouseFest, The Homefront United Network, Military.com, SpouseBUZZ, and Army News Service. She consulted for MilitaryOneClick (now known as MilSpouseFest), and helped launch the site #MilitaryVotesMatter, providing up-to-date information important to service members, veterans, and their families in the 2016 election. When not writing for military spouse support sites, she is currently working on her first novel while also volunteering as AWN's Blog Editor. When she can carve the time into her schedule, she writes about parenting, travel, books, and politics on her website, Keep It Peachey. You can find her on Instagram @keepitpeachey. She has a passion for reading, writing, politics, and political discussions. She considers herself a bookworm, pianist, wine enthusiast, and crossword addict.

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