No one serves alone: The impact of military service on children

When an individual joins the armed services on active duty, or in the National Guard or one of the reserve components, they temporarily leave communities, families and friends. They take with them partners, spouses and children. It’s often said, “If the service wanted you to have a family, one would have been issued.” However, today’s military is an all-volunteer force and family well-being is a key consideration in service retention.  

Even with the end of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is needed at home and abroad. A few examples of ongoing work include military medical support of U.S. hospitals during flares of COVID-19, assistance in communities during and after hurricanes, and assistance in the event of civil unrest, to name a few. All of this work is predicated on a fit and ready force. One insidious threat to force readiness is the well-being of military families. Military spouses heavily influence retention of highly trained service members, and 65 percent of military children want to pursue a career in the military, compared with 17 percent of their civilian counterparts. 

Military children make tremendous sacrifices. Children of active duty military members move every two to three years and will attend, on average, six to nine schools by the time they graduate high school. These young people have health insurance under TriCare, but specialty care and mental health are not routinely available for spouses or children in military treatment facilities. Military children do not have continuity in education, socialization or friend groups, access to health service, extended family, or even sports and leisure activities. Their roots are not in one place. When you meet an active duty child, ask them where they are from. They will answer the place they live now, where they lived the longest, where a grandparent lives, or where they liked living the best.

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Conversely, the children of reserve and National Guard members may be geographically stable. However, they may attend schools and live in communities unaware of the requirements and sacrifices associated with military service. Additionally, most reserve and National Guard families are not eligible for the services, support and health care benefits associated with active duty service, and may even live far from their assigned unit and their Family Readiness Group.

For example, a reservist may live in Florida or North Carolina and be assigned to a unit in another state — as far away as Maryland or even California. Reservists must pay their travel expenses to get to their unit of assignment. When the service member parent is called up, the family suddenly becomes military-oriented — which can be confounded further by a lack of understanding of military culture, coupled with a lack of essential support needed to ensure they transition through a deployment successfully.

Given these realities of military life, it is not surprising that a recent study conducted by Bloom and the National Military Family Association — “Empowering the Military Teen” — found that 42 percent of teens surveyed exhibited signs of emotional distress. Food insecurity was a reality for one-third of the teens, and 11 percent had experienced domestic violence or abuse in their households. Many of those surveyed felt that they had no voice, which can lead to feelings of powerlessness, depression and anxiety. While these children have opportunities and are often described as resilient, they are expressing stresses that cannot be ignored.

We have spent the latter part of our careers focused on researching the impact of parental military service on children and developing initiatives such as I Serve 2. The development of the I Serve 2: A Pocketcard for Healthcare Providers Caring for Military Children© is the first tool of its kind to help nurses and other health care professionals mitigate the physical and psychological impact of military life on children. This is essential because most military-connected children, active duty or reserve, receive their health care in the civilian sector from civilian health professionals. 

Currently there is little funding for research to study the risks and long-term impacts of parental military service and participation in military lifestyle on children. This research is critical to provide evidence-based recommendations. Congress needs to fund such research, whether it is through the National Institutes of Health or the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program

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We also call on Congress to include funding in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for military children and spouses to address continuity of education, occupation and health services. We urge veteran service organizations and community and faith-based organizations to include and expand programming for military families. The recent announcement regarding collaboration between Joining Forces, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Wounded Warrior Project and other veteran service organizations is the first step toward building supports to strengthen military families. Without the infrastructure in place to support these families — and specifically the children — it is not an overstatement to state the security of our nation is at risk.

We applaud the work of the co-founders of Bloom, who are working to elevate and amplify the voices of military-connected teens. Their advocacy and engagement in ensuring the needs of military children are met is admirable. It is our hope that together we can work to build resilience and healthy lives for those who choose to serve. We no longer can silo military families into three separate entities — we must view them as one unit that is equally impacted by service in the military. When one serves, all serve.

Alicia Rossiter, DNP, APRN, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force Reserve, is an associate professor and chief officer of Military and Veteran Affairs at the College of Nursing, University of South Florida. She also is a family and pediatric nurse practitioner engaged in military-related research.  

Catherine Ling, PhD, RN, is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, a family nurse practitioner, and a veteran spouse and military mom. 

Peggy Wilmoth, PhD, RN, is a retired major general with the U.S. Army and the executive vice dean and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.