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Research Questions

  1. How do military families fare on a set of outcomes over the course of a deployment cycle?
  2. How do families who experienced deployment compare to similar families that did not deploy over the same period?
  3. Which characteristics of deployment are associated with better or worse postdeployment outcomes?
  4. Which characteristics of families are associated with better or worse postdeployment outcomes?

In 2009, RAND launched the Deployment Life Study, a longitudinal study of military families across a deployment cycle in order to assess family readiness. Family readiness refers to the state of being prepared to effectively navigate the challenges of daily living experienced in the unique context of military service. The study surveyed families at frequent intervals throughout a complete deployment cycle — before a service member deploys (sometimes months before), during the actual deployment, and after the service member returns (possibly a year or more after she or he redeployed). It assessed a number of outcomes over time, including:

  • the quality of marital and parental relationships
  • the psychological, behavioral, and physical health of family members
  • child and teen well-being (e.g., emotional, behavioral, social, and academic)
  • military integration (e.g., attitudes toward military service, retention intentions).

This culminating report briefly reviews the study design and data collection procedures, presents results from analyses of the longitudinal data collected from some 2,700 military families, and offers recommendations for programs and future research related to military families. The research was jointly sponsored by the Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army, and by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Key Findings

Marital Relationships

  • Across the entire deployment cycle, couples, on average, became significantly less satisfied with their marriages and engaged in less psychological and physical aggression than they reported prior to the deployment. These changes across the deployment cycle do not differ significantly from the changes experienced during the same period by similar couples that did not deploy.

Family Relationships

  • Service members reported better family environments during deployments than before or after deployments, possibly because they are removed from the day-to-day challenges associated with family life. Spouses, in contrast, reported no significant changes in family environment across the deployment cycle.
  • Service members who reported engaging in more predeployment preparation activities reported higher satisfaction with parenting postdeployment. Similarly, spouses who reported more preparation activities and greater satisfaction with the frequency of communication with the service member during deployment reported higher parenting satisfaction postdeployment.

Psychological and Behavioral Health

  • We found no overall significant effect of deployment on persistent psychological or behavioral health outcomes for service members or spouses. This is consistent with the fact that we studied a relatively experienced population, serving during a period of the conflict with comparatively low levels of reported deployment trauma.
  • However, deployed service members who experienced deployment trauma did show a persistent increase in their depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and anxiety symptoms relative to their pre-deployment levels. When the service member experienced physical trauma (i.e., injury) during the study deployment, their spouses also showed persistent increases in those symptoms.

Child and Teen Well-Being

  • In our analyses, most outcomes did not change over the course of a deployment cycle. Those that did change might reflect maturational changes among children and teens rather than changes related to deployment.
  • Three child outcomes (reported by spouses) showed significant changes over the deployment cycle: Total difficulties (and more specifically, emotional problems), as well as depression screener scores. Spouses reported elevated symptoms in their children during deployment.

Military Integration

  • Communication with other military families during deployment was associated with higher service member retention intentions and greater spouse and teen military commitment postdeployment.
  • Experiences of nondeployed families may also be stressful, which may minimize the gap between deployed and nondeployed families. For example, among nondeployed families, relocation was related to decreased military satisfaction, commitment, and retention intentions among service members.


  • Programs, services, and policies should target families that experience deployment trauma, especially during the postdeployment phase.
  • Addressing psychological problems around the time of separation may be important for avoiding the longer-term impairments caused by these problems, such as increased morbidity, homelessness, unemployment, or substance use among veterans.
  • Attention to the challenges associated with deployment should not detract from supporting services that address other challenges of military life.
  • Programs that facilitate communication both between and within military families during a deployment may promote not only greater military integration, but also better outcomes across the domains highlighted in this report.
  • Support to improve relationships among service members, spouses, and their teen children during the postdeployment, reintegration period may improve family functioning.
  • Future research on military families should explore ways in which data can be collected from multiple family members at the same time.
  • Future research on military families should prioritize longitudinal studies. Procedures for collecting real-time data from military families should be explored.
  • New theories, measures, and analyses of deployment experiences should be developed that can account for apparent complexities of the relationships between deployment and post-deployment outcomes.

This research was jointly sponsored by the Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army, and by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. The work was conducted jointly within the Army Personnel, Training, and Health Program with the RAND Arroyo Center and the Forces and Resources Policy Center within the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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