Uncertainty about a variety of issues is on the rise among military families, according to the latest Blue Star Families Lifestyle Survey.
For the first time this year, the survey included post-service employment on the list of topics of potential concern — and it placed in the top five among both active-duty and veteran respondents.
There's a theme of "eyes on the exits," said Cristin Orr Shiffer, deputy director of research and policy for the nonprofit Blue Star Families.
She said there are a number of reasons for that, including concerns among families about involuntary separations due to force drawdowns and about their financial situations now and after they leave the military. Tied into that are worries about future employment prospects for both service members and their spouses.
The sixth annual Blue Star Families survey was conducted online in April and May, and was released Wednesday.
Continued cutbacks to military pay, benefits and privileges compound the uncertainty families are feeling, on top of drawdowns and a continued high deployment pace, as new and ongoing trouble spots fester around the world.
"There are a lot of conversations around the dinner table about whether to stay in or get out," Shiffer said.
While military pay and retirement changes still rank among the top two concerns for military spouses, active-duty members and veterans who took the online survey, the percentages of those with concerns was lower this year than last.
For example, 65 percent of service members listed military pay and benefits as their top concern this year, down from 75 percent last year. Among military spouses, those figures were 63 percent this year and 75 percent last year.
Possible retirement changes were ranked as a top concern by 63 percent of active-duty members this year, down from 75 percent last year. Among spouses, those figures were 51 percent this year and 63 percent last year.
Shiffer said that decrease is at least partly explained by the fact that more response choices have been added for those questions. But on the issue of retirement change, she said participants may be more cognizant of the fact that military retirement will continue, and that those currently serving will be "grandfathered," rather than forced to accept any potential changes.
The survey was conducted shortly after the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission released its recommendations, including an extensive overhaul of the traditional 20-year-or-nothing military-retirement model.
Another emerging trend in the survey is worry over housing costs. Like last year, over one-third of participants indicated that their housing costs outstripped their housing allowances. The Defense Department has begun a series of slight incremental cuts to housing allowances that will increase troops' out-of-pocket housing costs over the next few years.
Seventy-three percent of families reported unexpected expenses related to the military lifestyle. Of those, 86 percent cited unanticipated expenses during permanent change-of-station moves.
Child care challenges and concerns about children's mental, physical and educational well-being were noted, and additional support for flexible and affordable child care remains a top request, researchers noted.
Sixty percent of respondents reported deployments of more than 12 months since Sept. 11, 2001.
A total of 6,291 people responded to this year's online survey, designed by Blue Star Families in collaboration with Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
It is not a random sampling; this year's participants were older and more senior compared to the overall active-duty population, with 54 percent ages 45 or older, and 25 percent ages 65 or older.
Fifty-eight percent had served or were family members of those who had served since Sept. 11, 2001, while 27 percent served during the Vietnam era. Forty-five percent of participants were in paygrades E-5 to E-9 or spouses married to troops in those paygrades, while 13 percent of respondents were in the junior enlisted grades or married to someone in those grades.
Forty-seven percent were spouses; 43 percent were service members or veterans. The rest were parents, children, siblings, domestic partners and others.
Among the expanded employment threads added to this year's survey was the impact of service members' work obligations on their spouses' employment. Thirty-six percent of unemployed active-duty spouses said that they were not working due to their service member's job or work obligations.
- Seven percent of respondents with children said their kids were home-schooled, indicating that military families may home-school their children at more than double the rate of the general population.
- Seventy percent reported having an emergency fund. Of those, 27 percent have funds for fewer than three months of living expenses, while 10 percent have funds for more than nine months.
- Active-duty families were most likely to be saving for retirement using the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), with 56 percent reporting that they participate in TSP; 34 percent contribute to a service member's Individual Retirement Account (IRA); 47 percent contribute to a spouse’s employer-sponsored retirement plan or IRA.
- Seventy-four percent of post-9/11 veterans had attended some form of transition assistance program, and 56 percent said that it helped prepare them to successfully transition to civilian life.
- Thirteen percent of spouses who were unemployed said that they were students and will be looking for jobs soon. Many spouses are pursuing additional education as a strategy for overcoming unemployment challenges related to the military lifestyle.
The researchers had a number of recommendations for improving the lives of military families, related to the employment of military spouses, military-child education and wellness, child care, financial and retirement-savings education, strong mental health, veteran employment and local civilian-community engagement.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.