Military Families under Stress: Implications for Family Life Education*

By Drummet, Amy Reinkober; Coleman, Marilyn et al. | Family Relations, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Military Families under Stress: Implications for Family Life Education*


Drummet, Amy Reinkober, Coleman, Marilyn, Cable, Susan, Family Relations


We provide a summary of the limited research on three uniquely stressful experiences of military families: relocation, separation, and reunion. Using the insights derived from this literature, we identify and discuss interventions to assist and guide military families through these unique events.

Key Words: families, military, relocation, reunion, separation.

The United States military, comprising the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines, has promoted and protected American interests for decades. As of April 2001, the military included 1.37 million active duty service members, 1.28 million reservists, and 669,000 civilian employees (www.defenselink.mil/pubs/almanac). Sixty percent of troops have family responsibilities (www.DOD.gov). A decade ago, about 3.5% of the U.S. population was in the active-duty armed forces, the National Guard, or the reserves or was a dependent of someone who was a service member (Black, 1993). During the 1990s, the military experienced financial cutbacks, and uniformed active duty personnel were reduced by about 700,000. Additionally, roles were restricted primarily to peacekeeping missions and disaster relief, a combination that failed to provide an attractive alternative for continued reenlistment, resulted in fewer individuals choosing the military as a career, and steadily reduced the number of reserve forces (U.S. Department of Defense, 2000). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the war in Afghanistan, the crisis in the Middle East, and the continued world war against terrorists have reemphasized the importance of national security and brought America's military back into the forefront. This does not mean, however, that more family services are being offered in an attempt to recruit and retain service members.

More than two decades ago, McCubbin and Marsden (1978) warned that to retain high-quality service members, all branches of the military would need to compete with a corporate market that offered greater economic security and a more conducive structure for family life. This concern remains (www.DOD.gov). Our purpose here is to generate interest in the development, implementation, and evaluation of family life education programs for military families in light of the unique Stressors they continue to face.

Military Family Issues

Segal (1986) identified both the military and the family as greedy institutions (i.e., those that seek exclusive and undivided loyalty from members). Historically, the military could afford to be a greedy institution. Because the military was comprised mostly of single men, there was little need to be concerned about family life. This changed with the advent of an all-volunteer force, but the change was not immediately accompanied by a modification in thinking about military families (Albano, 1994). Traditionally, families were expected to adapt to the norms and values of the military. Recently, however, the military's high demands on the family have sometimes been met with intolerance and dissatisfaction by military families (Bowen, 1989; Harrell, 2002; Orthner, Bowen, & Beare, 1990). Concern about family issues has become particularly heightened as a result of the increased percentage of women in the military, struggling to balance their careers and motherhood. There is a need to understand the complexity of the lives of military women, especially if they are also mothers (Kelley et al., 2001). The country's reliance on the military since September 11 necessitates new approaches to increase the benefits and appeal to current and new service members in order to help sustain U.S. national defense.

Family life educators (FLEs) are professionals who are trained to use a life course approach and "strengthen and enrich individual and family well-being" (Arcus, Schvaneveldt, & Moss, 1993, p. 5) and are a logical group to help provide new approaches. Although many FLEs work within the military system, there are also opportunities for FLEs outside the military to supplement or provide programs on or near bases where services are inadequate. …

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