On balance, most military families bounce back from deployments, according to findings of the first comprehensive study of military families over the deployment cycle.

But there are some notable exceptions, such as some emotional problems for children, and some adjustment problems reported by teens.

The findings "provide evidence that the experience of deployment is not uniformly associated with negative changes," researchers said in the report, produced by the think tank Rand. The research, launched in 2009, was funded by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and the Army's Office of the Surgeon General.

The findings indicate that the key may be what happens to the service member during a deployment, rather than the actual fact that the service member is away from home.

The Deployment Life Study surveyed 2,724 married service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, their spouses, and, when available, one child between the ages of 11 and 17, every four months across a three-year period. Included in the group were service members who deployed, and a similar number of service members who didn't deploy, so that researchers were able to compare the two groups.

They were surveyed before, during and after the deployments. The youth (425 participated) answered their own questions; spouses answered questions about their children under age 11. To be eligible, the service member and spouse had to be living together and eligible for deployment within six to 12 months of the initial, baseline survey. The research was conducted over a three-year period.  

"Everyone was surprised we didn't find more negative consequences of deployment. We thought we'd find a lot of negative impacts," said Sarah Meadows, senior sociologist at Rand and one of the lead authors.

"We can talk about military families generally not being seriously impacted," she said. "But some families don't do well, while some do really well," and others fall somewhere in between, she said. The study results speak to the ability of military families to cope. And while the research didn't evaluate programs for military families, she said, "it does suggest that what's out there is doing something in terms of programs and services."

"My biggest take-away from this whole study is that it was done several years too late," said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. "Rand is quick to admit — multiple times — that the bulk of the long, more intense deployments were over before they could get through all the approval processes and actually begin to field the study.

"That's such a shame and should be a lesson to DoD for the future. There should be ongoing longitudinal research being conducted so that we have a good baseline of data about how military families are doing."

The researchers noted the limitations of the study: The data collection began in 2012 and ended in the summer of 2015. Had the research been conducted in 2006 or 2007, when deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were longer, more frequent and more dangerous, the results may have been different. In addition, the baseline sample included fairly experienced families, married on average about 10 years and in the military for about 10 years, so on some level they have learned to cope with deployments. Only about 10 percent in the study were experiencing their first-time deployment, Meadows said.

The researchers didn't report the number of divorces and separations in the group studied. The numbers were too low for a meaningful analysis, Meadows said.

Among the findings:

  • Combat trauma experiences, such as engaging directly with the enemy, were associated with more negative outcomes. But psychological trauma, such as witnessing noncombatant injuries or injuries of a comrade, and physical injuries, sometimes resulted in improved outcomes for families. Meadows explained that in some cases, the service member may have gained a greater appreciation for family and life in these cases. These findings merit more exploration, researchers noted.
  • Across the deployment cycle, on the average, couples become less satisfied with their marriage. But those changes aren’t significantly different from the changes experienced by matched couples that didn’t deploy. Meadows said it’s not unusual for marital satisfaction to decline in civilian couples, too.
  • For spouses, more frequent communication with the service member during deployment is associated with greater marital satisfaction after the deployment.
  • There was no overall significant effect of deployment on psychological or behavioral health problems for service members or spouses. But service members who experienced deployment trauma showed an increase in depression, post-traumatic stress and anxiety symptoms, compared with their levels before deployment. When the service member was injured during the study deployment, the spouse showed increases in these symptoms, as well as in binge drinking. Researchers recommended, during that post-deployment phase for military families, that programs, services and polices should target families whose service member experienced deployment trauma.
  • Leaving the military in the post-deployment period had effects on service members and spouses. For spouses, there was lower marital satisfaction; and deployed members who subsequently separated from or retired from the military showed increased levels of psychological symptoms. Addressing psychological problems around the time of separation from the military may be important for avoiding longer-term problems, the researchers noted.
  • There generally was no significant effect from deployment on children and teens. But an exception was found from spouses who reported concerns following a study deployment about their children who were younger than 11. (These children were not interviewed; the spouses were asked about them.) There were more difficulties, such as emotional conduct and peer problems, and more need for child mental health services, compared with these younger children in matched families that who didn’t experience a deployment during the research period.
  • Sometimes teens disagreed with their parents’ perceptions of how the family was adjusting after the deployment. Teens said after the deployment, family cohesion was not as good, and the relationship with the parent at home was not as good. Some said that after the deployment, the relationship with the deployed parent was not as good. Of the 425 teens who provided information, the changes the researchers saw "were enough to be statistically significant," Meadows said.
  • Teens reported that their drug use increased slightly after deployment. They self-reported drug use as very low (around "never") before and during deployments, but increased afterward to just slightly more than "never."
  • Service members and spouses who engaged in predeployment activities reported higher satisfaction with parenting post-deployment.
  • Financial distress declined during the deployment for both the spouse and the service member.
  • Communication with other military families and other military teens during the deployment was strongly associated with more positive outcomes.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.

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.

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