Cover: After Nearly a Decade of War, Servicemembers and Families Report Stress, Resilience

After Nearly a Decade of War, Servicemembers and Families Report Stress, Resilience

Published May 15, 2014

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After Nearly a Decade of War, Servicemembers and Families Report Stress, Resilience

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have put America's all-volunteer force to its most severe test since its inception in 1973. Between 1996 and 2002, 31,000 to 77,000 U.S. servicemembers were deployed abroad on active duty at any given time. Between 2003 and 2007, however, that range reached 74,000 to 294,000.

A line graph provides a visual representation of this information. The number of deployed U.S. servicemembers spikes in 2003 before decreasing again, but remains significantly higher than pre-2003 levels and continues to slowly increase.

This overall increase has been sustained through successful military recruiting and incentive strategies. But how are the troops and their families faring?

A growing body of RAND research is helping to illustrate the consequences so that support programs and other policies can better serve the populations in need.

For more information about RAND research on this issue, including insight into the ways the military is sustaining readiness, see www.rand.org/feature/military-well-being

NOTE: Deployment graphic and ranges are based on How Is Deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan Affecting U.S. Service Members and Their Families? RAND/OP-316, 2011, p. 3, www.rand.org/t/OP316.

U.S. Servicemembers

More than two million U.S. servicemembers have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of these troops experience trauma while deployed and return home with mental health conditions. A variety of barriers may be preventing many of those in need from seeking care.

Nearly 20 percent of servicemembers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan reported symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression, as of fall 2007. More than 400,000 could be affected as of today.

U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) suicide rates have historically been lower than those of a comparable subgroup of the U.S. population. In 2006, an increase in the DoD rate began to narrow the gap.

NOTE: Based on RAND research into probable rates of PTSD and major depression among servicemembers returning from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and into suicide rates; see Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery, RAND/MG-720, 2008, p. 98, www.rand.org/t/MG720, and The War Within: Preventing Suicide in the U.S. Military, RAND/MG-953, 2011, pp. xv, 15, www.rand.org/t/MG953.

Traumatic Experiences Are Common During Deployments

  • My friend was seriously wounded or killed: 50%
  • I saw dead or seriously injured noncombatants:45%
  • I witnessed serious injury or death: 45%
  • I smelled decomposing bodies: 37%
  • I was physically moved or knocked over by an explosion: 23%
  • I was injured but not hospitalized: 23%
  • I received a blow to the head in an accident or injury: 18%
  • I was injured and hospitalized: 11%

NOTE: Based on RAND research into rates of trauma exposure among servicemembers deployed to OEF or OIF; see Invisible Wounds of War, p. 97.

Troops Report Barriers to Seeking Care

  • The medications could have too many side effects
  • It could harm my career
  • I could be denied a security clearance
  • My family and friends would be more helpful than a mental health professional
  • My coworkers would have less confidence in me
  • I don't think my treatment would be kept confidential
  • My commander or supervisor might respect me less
  • My friends and family would respect me less
  • I could lose contact with or custody of my children
  • My commander or supervisor asked us not to get treatment

NOTE: Based on a survey of servicemembers deployed to OEF or OIF; see Invisible Wounds of War, p. 104.

Spouses and Caregivers from Military Families

The lives of spouses and caregivers from military families change dramatically during deployment. There are both challenges and benefits, but, for many, child- and employment-related problems appear to worsen.

Deployment Effects in Three Key Areas

according to a survey of active-duty U.S. Air Force spouses

worsened improved no change
Child-related problems 52% 7% 41%
Employment-related problems 44% 9% 48%
Financial problems 29% 35% 36%

NOTE: Based on a RAND survey of active-duty U.S. Air Force spouses; see Year of the Air Force Family: 2009 Survey of Active-Duty Spouses, RAND/TR-879, 2011, pp. 18, 21, 25, www.rand.org/t/TR879.

Views from the Homefront: Greatest Challenges

  • I took on more responsibilities at home: 82%
  • I helped my child deal with life without the deployed parent: 80%
  • People in my community didn't get what life was like for me: 52%
  • I spent more time with my child on homework: 52%
  • I talked to teachers about my child's school performance: 50%
  • I felt like I had no one to talk to about my stress, sadness: 49%
  • I lost contact with other military families: 29%
  • I no longer spent time with other military families: 18%

NOTE: Based on a RAND survey of families that applied to the Operation Purple camp program; see Views from the Homefront: The Experiences of Youth and Spouses from Military Families, RAND/TR-913, 2011, p. 46, www.rand.org/t/TR913.

Deployment Challenges and Benefits

according to interviews with spouses of deployed reserve component personnel

Deployment Challenges
  • Household responsibilities 40%
  • Emotional or mental 39%
  • Children's issues 26%
  • Financial or legal 15%
  • None 14%
Deployment Benefits
  • Family closeness: 29%
  • Patriotism, pride... : 24%
  • Financial gain: 20%
  • Independence, confidence...: 20%
  • None: 13%

NOTE: Based on RAND interviews with Reserve and National Guard families that experienced at least one overseas deployment; see Deployment Experiences of Guard and Reserve Families: Implications for Support and Retention, RAND/MG-645, 2008, pp. 71, 109, www.rand.org/t/MG645.

Children from Military Families

Along certain measures of functioning and well-being, children from military families are no different from other children. However, they do report experiencing more anxiety symptoms, emotional difficulties, and problems with family functioning.

Military Kids Compared with Their Peers

  • Peer functioning difficulties: comparable
  • Academic engagement problems: comparable
  • Risk behaviors: comparable
  • Emotional or behavioral difficulties: elevated
  • Anxiety symptoms: elevated
  • Family functioning difficulties: elevated

NOTE: Based on a RAND survey of families that applied to the Operation Purple camp program; see Views from the Homefront: The Experiences of Youth and Spouses from Military Families, RAND/TR-913, 2011, p. xv, www.rand.org/t/TR913.

Many Problems Persist for at Least a Year for Military Kids

Summer '08 6 months later 12 months later
Emotional difficulties (youth-reported) 11.5 10.2 9.7
Emotional difficulties (caregiver-reported) 9.9 8.1 8.5
Risk behaviors 5.4 5.3 5.4
School connectedness issues N/A 5.0 5.0
Academic engagement issues 4.8 4.3 4.4
Family functioning difficulties 4.3 3.8 3.8
Anxiety symptoms 1.9 1.6 1.6
Peer functioning difficulties 1.8 1.6 1.3

Values are mean scores.

NOTE: Based on a RAND survey of families that applied to the Operation Purple camp program; see Views from the Homefront, p. 25.

Emotional Difficulties, Anxiety Symptoms

  • 34%: In a sample, percentage of military kids experiencing moderate or high levels of emotional difficulties, according to caregivers
  • 19%: Estimated percentage of youth in the general population with these emotional difficulties
  • 30%: In a sample, percentage of military kids reporting elevated anxiety symptoms
  • 15%: Estimated percentage of youth in the general population with these anxiety symptoms

NOTE: Based on multiple studies (youth in the general population) and a RAND survey of families that applied to the Operation Purple camp program (military kids); see Views from the Homefront, pp. 24, 28.

Infographic by Erin-Elizabeth Johnson (concept and data storytelling) and Pete Soriano (design). Excerpted from RAND Review/Summer 2011.

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