Airman and Family Resilience

Lessons from the Scientific Literature

by Sarah O. Meadows, Laura L. Miller, Sean Robson

This Article

RAND Health Quarterly, 2016; 5(3):10


This final overarching study in a series documents research and recommendations RAND offered to the Air Force to help strengthen the development of a new office responsible for monitoring and promoting resilience among Air Force Airmen, civilian employees, and Air Force families. Efforts to boost resilience have become an important military response to suicide and other markers of distress and poor health. The study reviews the concepts and measures of resilience, resilience factors, hardiness and flourishing. It describes how resilience and the military’s Total Force Fitness concepts are related. The study brings together highlights from the eight companion studies on each Total Force Fitness domain and characterizes types of Air Force data that could be used to track resilience.

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Full Text

In recent years, the U.S. military has increasingly focused on how service personnel and their families respond to an array of stressors related to demanding deployments across the nation and around the world, including more than a decade of combat operations in Central Asia and Iraq. Deployment has the potential to contribute to individual stress, with such factors as uncertainty about assignment time lines; culture shock in theater; fear of or confrontation with death or physical injury; environmental challenges, such as extreme climates and geographical features; austere living conditions; separation from friends and family members; and reintegration after deployment. Service members and their families also manage other military-related stressors, such as frequent relocations, long work hours, and the additional family separations associated with unaccompanied tours and domestic training exercises. Individuals and families may cope well or even thrive as they overcome adversity and accomplish challenging tasks. But some may suffer negative consequences as a result of military-related stressors, such as physical injury, including traumatic brain injury; depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders; post-traumatic stress disorder; spiritual crises; substance abuse; family dysfunction; marital problems and dissolutions; social isolation; and, in extreme cases, even suicide or suicide attempts. Top military officials have expressed alarm at the increasing suicide rates in the ranks and, in considering the demands and hardship on service personnel and their families, have committed to ensuring that they receive the support they need. With the aim of preventing rather than simply responding to deleterious outcomes, the study of resilience has taken on paramount importance to military leaders, especially in the Air Force.

In fiscal year 2011, the Air Force offices of Airman and Family Services (AF/A1S), the Surgeon General (AF/SG), and the Secretary of the Air Force, Force Management and Personnel (SAF/MRM) asked RAND to conduct a literature review. The goal was to assist the Air Force in understanding how to assess and track the total fitness of the force and develop programs to increase the resiliency of military and civilian Air Force personnel and their families. The staff members assigned to the new Air Force Resilience Office to lead efforts on this new issue were not subject matter experts and lacked the time to research and assess the literature themselves. They wanted to ensure that their efforts were not just based on popular claims and general notions but that they aligned with current science.

They asked that RAND researchers also adopt and adapt to what the U.S. armed forces already had outlined as the concept of Total Force Fitness, with service personnel and families who are “healthy, ready, and resilient; capable of meeting challenges and surviving threats” (Mullen, 2010, p. 1). This notion of “fitness” is directly related to the concept of resilience, and TFF reflected the collective effort of scholars, health professionals, and military personnel, who outlined what they saw as its eight domains: medical, nutritional, environmental, physical, social, spiritual, behavioral, and psychological.

This overarching study builds on the foundation of the eight previous studies—all designed to be succinct and accessible to the nonspecialist—on each of those domains. It brings together highlights of the reviews and documents their relevance to Air Force metrics and programs. This study provides a more in-depth introduction to resilience concepts and research, presents a RAND model of the relationship between resilience and TFF, and documents Air Force resiliency efforts and metrics for tracking the resiliency of Air Force personnel and their families at the time of this study. The research identified the following key themes:

  • Resilience can be studied only in the context of stress.
  • It is a process, rather than a static set of traits or characteristics.
  • Individuals do not have a static, set amount of resilience or resilience resources or factors.
  • Key resilience resources/factors broadly include personality factors, behaviors, external resources, and biology/physiology.

By comparing information found in the research literature to Air Force practices and data collection at the time, this study also provided seven recommendations aimed at supporting the development of initiatives to bolster resilience across the Air Force, including the following:

  • Promote regular unit physical activity and hold commanders accountable for the physical fitness of their military personnel.
  • Better resource Health and Wellness Centers to increase capacity for targeted interventions by subject matter experts.
  • Continue to leverage Wingman Day.*
  • Add a Programs and Services tab to the Air Force Base website template.
  • Increase sharing of resilience-related data across the Air Staff.
  • Fill gaps in data collection.
  • Strengthen the ability of the Air Force Resilience Office (which preceded the Comprehensive Airman Fitness Office) to promote resilience factors across the force.

The research also underscored that there is no survey instrument, professional assessment, or biological test available today with which commanders can determine who in their unit will or will not be resilient in the face of stress. Predicting human behavior is extremely difficult. In social science, the best predictors tend to capture only a small percentage of the variance. Resilience is in a constant state of fluctuation; resilience resources and stressors can come and go. But the literature can help the Air Force build individual and community capacity to be resilient by understanding which factors shape the experience and interpretation of stressors, responses to stressors, and associated changes to well-being and resilience resources, if any, following the event.


Mullen, A. M., “On Total Force Fitness in War and Peace,” Military Medicine, Vol. 175 (Supplement), 2010, pp. 1–2.


* Wingman Day is a program that helps Airmen and their families cope with stress and builds on the concept of Airmen taking care of Airmen (i.e., Airmen acting as “wingmen”). Typically a Wingman Day will consist of day-long activities, including team-building exercises and group learning sessions, designed to build comradery and a sense of group identity. Topics vary from year to year and installation to installation but generally highlight ways in which Airmen and their families can maintain and strengthen elements of Total Force Fitness.

The research reported here was sponsored by the Air Force offices of Airman and Family Services (AF/A1S), the Surgeon General (AF/SG), and the Secretary of the Air Force, Force Management and Personnel (SAF/MRM) and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

RAND Health Quarterly is produced by the RAND Corporation. ISSN 2162-8254.