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  • Feature Story: Understanding the Military Family-Researching the Impact of Military Life

    “If the Navy wanted you to have a family, they would’ve issued you one in your sea bag.”

    This statement sums up the old way of viewing military families. Providing support for the challenges they faced was an afterthought or an inconvenience.
    Today, the Navy, along with the Marines, the Army, and the Air Force, have come to understand that families play an essential role in the readiness of their service members.
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    “A deployed service member worried about their family back on the home front is not 100 percent focused on the mission,” said Valerie Stander, Ph.D., and principal investigator for the Millennium Cohort Family Study at the Naval Health Research Center (NHRC). “That’s why the Department of Defense (DoD) is making quality of life for military families a priority.”
    In June 2011, the DoD’s largest population-based study in military history, the Millennium Cohort Study, began enrolling spouses from all services, including the Reserves and National Guard, as part of a  new Family Study. Since then, approximately 10,000 spouses have been enrolled.
    “We have known for a long time that military spouses play a critical role in supporting our military personnel,” said Stander. “In many ways the military counts on spouses to be the other half of our military readiness equation. Yet, for too long we haven't understood enough about how military life affects the lives of service members' partners.”
    The overarching goal of the Family Study is to understand how military service impacts family members, spouses and children alike. This study, the first of its kind, seeks to get a better understanding of the long-term association between military experiences and deployments and the health and well-being of families. 
    Information is collected from participating spouses using a web-based survey that focuses on  a variety of topics, including physical and mental health, the quality of marital and family relationships, work/family balance, deployment and reunion experiences, and protective factors and coping mechanisms.
    The study is longitudinal and seeks to follow spouses for 21 or more years, with follow-up surveys requested approximately every three years. Even if enrolled spouses become separated or divorced from their service member or the service member separates from the military, follow-up will continue to capture the changes in military families’ experiences over time.
    “Through the Millennium Cohort Family Study we hope to get a bird's-eye view of how military life plays out for our families over the long haul,” said Stander. “We know that most families are resilient in the short term, but how does military life impact spouses and kids who stay in the military for 20 years compared to those who serve a single term and then move on to civilian life? And, we know  deployment and other military-related family separations are stressful, but most families bounce back once they have the chance to reunite and reintegrate. But, what factors predict the difference for those that do continue to struggle for some time?”
    Researchers want to answer these questions and more. They are also interested in studying the cumulative impact of deployments, frequent training assignments away from home, and extended unaccompanied assignments.
    “The only way to get our arms around those outcomes is to take a really long, hard look at how people are doing over the years,” said Stander.
    To date, key findings from the Family Study include:
    ·         89% of participants are younger than 35
    ·         12% of participants are male
    ·         71% of participants have been married five years or less
    ·         63% of participants have children
    ·         10% of participants are dual military families
    ·         74% of participants’ spouses have deployed
    ·         3% of participants represent Reserve and National Guard families
    “The military family policy, support, and research communities have all expressed considerable interest in the Family Study as it has evolved and progressed” said Stander. “All of these groups potentially look to the results of the study to understand how they can do their jobs better.”
    The team at NHRC also partners with military family researchers at multiple locations, including Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and civilian universities, who are all helping to analyze and interpret the data.
    “Our internal team here, in turn, is connecting with military policy makers and service providers to ensure we communicate the results of this work to those who can make a difference,” added Stander.
    “The Millennium Cohort Family Study research team is profoundly grateful for the dedication of all of our research participants,” said Stander. “Without family members who take time out of their busy schedules to tell us about how things are going for them and how they feel military life has impacted them and their families, this study would not be possible. I think most of our participants are motivated to help the military community improve programs and services for future generations of service members and their spouses and children. I think they see it as a chance to help build that future military community.”