Adult Children of Fathers Missing in Action (MIA): An Examination of Emotional Distress, Grief, and Family Hardiness

Article excerpt

This study investigated the relationships among emotional distress, grief, and family hardiness in adult children of missing in action (MIA) fathers using the Resiliency Model of Family Stress, Adjustment and Adaptation. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected in telephone interviews of twenty adult children. Results indicated that 25 years after notification of their father's MIA status, participants still had unresolved grief. Findings provide some support for family hardiness as a strength that facilitated family bonadaptation.

Key Words: ambiguous loss, Brief, parental loss, resilience, stress, Vietnam War.

Adult Children of Fathers Missing in Action (MIA): An Examination of Emotional Distress, Grief, and Family Hardiness*

When the Vietnam War ended militarily in 1973, there were 2,453 men listed as missing in action (MIA) (Doyle, 1992). "A military service member is in a missing (missing in action) status if not at his duty location due to apparent involuntary reasons as a result of hostile action and his location is not known" (Department of Defense POW/MIA Newsletter, 1996, p. 5). Three criteria currently guide accounting for missing personnel by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office: (1) the return of a live American; (2) the return of identifiable remains; and (3) provision of convincing evidence why the first two criteria are not possible (personal communication, June 19, 1998). In 1998 the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia reported 2,089 men remain still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War: 1,559 in Vietnam (North, 566; South, 993); 447 in Laos; 75 in Cambodia; and 8 in Peoples Republic of China territorial waters. The MIA issue fueled intense political debates in the United States government and sparked dramatic stories in the Hollywood film industry (Leonard, 1993).

Experiencing the loss of a loved one during the Vietnam War was difficult for all families. Impact of war challenged a family system to regain its normal functioning (Hogancamp & Figley, 1983). Many families continue to wrestle with resolution of losses that occurred during the Vietnam War (Berkseth, 1988). Circumstances of the death, the lack of concrete evidence, the inadequate support available, and the conflicted social environment associated with the Vietnam War contributed to family dif ficulty in resolving the loss (Provost, 1989). Families of those missing in military action experience tremendous stress from the lack of confirmation of the death, the continuing absence of the loved one, and the demand for an end of mourning (Rando, 1993). Complicated mourning in these families has resulted from having to "know without knowing" and "to live without knowing" (Rando, 1993, p. 397). Resolution of their grief is complicated by boundary ambiguity and ambiguous loss (Boss, 1999).

Twenty-five years later, how have families of these men, and especially their children, who are now adults, lived with the MIA issue? The purpose of this descriptive, correlational study was to examine relationships among emotional distress, grief, and family hardiness in adult children of MIA fathers from the Vietnam War. Questions investigated in the study included:

1. What is the level of emotional distress related to their father's MIA status, in adult children whose fathers are still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War?

2. What current grief manifestations do these adult children report?

3. What is the reported level of family of origin hardiness in these adult children?

4. What are the relationships among emotional distress, grief, and family hardiness in these adult children?

While this study utilizes a quantitative design rather than a naturalistic design, it is important to note that the first author of this article is an adult child of an MIA father. Thus while a positivist paradigm was used, the study, from original conception to completion, was influenced by the first author's experience (see Personal Thoughts at end of paper). …