Using Military Friendships to Optimize Postdeployment Reintegration for Male Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom Veterans

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The role of social relationships in health outcomes is an area of growing research importance. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has begun to encourage research programs that explore the role of family members in veterans' health outcomes, particularly after the deployed veteran has been away from the family for an extended time. Research shows that contentious postdeployment interactions with civilian family members are linked with poor mental health outcomes [1-3]. However, supportive and emotionally intimate civilian family interactions with the returning veteran seem to protect against mental health problems. Family therapy sessions that include both the veteran and his or her family have been shown to successfully improve returning veterans' mental health outcomes [4-7].

Postdeployment family reintegration literature focuses on the family's role in helping the veteran transition from Active Duty military deployment to civilian society. This focus may miss other important personal connections that affect the veteran's life. One such connection is the relationship many veterans have with former military unit members who served with them when deployed. Former military unit members are typically cited as obstacles to civilian family reintegration [8] because of the emotional and experiential ties that bind military unit members. However, we argue that these same ties could be used strategically to create a supportive transition from Active Duty to civilian society.

Drawing on interviews with Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) veterans conducted from 2008 to 2009, we propose that the members of a military unit, especially those who participated as a group during a period of armed conflict, should be considered a resource to help rather than impede family reintegration. This proposal has implications for current reintegration policy and for the best way to help veterans transition into civilian society.

Postdeployment Reintegration

As of December 2009, 179,090 Active Duty (i.e., fulltime) and 71,217 Reserve Component servicemembers were on Active Duty as part of OIF/OEF [9]. In all, about 2,052,405 servicemembers have been deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars [10]. An estimated 2 to 3 percent of the total American population, including family members, has been directly touched by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Postdeployment reintegration is stressful for veterans and their families, and family upheaval is common [8,11]. When the family environment is acrimonious, anger, distrust, and alienation can create veteran mental states that contribute to negative mental health outcomes [12]. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnoses are more likely for those veterans whose family lives are characterized by low levels of expressiveness, low family cohesiveness, and high interpersonal conflict [1-3]. Contentious family relationships are also related to veteran interpartner violence [13], increased rates and severity of child abuse [14], marital dissolution, and divorce [15-17]. At the worst, family dysfunction and dissolution are linked to veteran homelessness [18-22].

Reintegration and Former Military Unit Members

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother...." [23].

Western culture has long recognized military friendships to be among the strongest relationships a veteran forms. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle noted that military camaraderie was essential for dealing with the emotional strains of combat [24]. Research supports the idea that being part of a military unit creates an uncommonly strong bond between military members. Both formal military training and military culture are built around the concept of servicemembers developing profound reliance on their comrades [25], and reliance can foster deep friendships. Physical and social isolation, an experience of shared risks, and deprivations of deployment encourage servicemembers to rely heavily on military unit members for social and emotional support, forging strong friendships [25-27]. …