The Experience of Reintegration for Military Families

by Michelle D. Sherman, Ph.D., Kyle R. Hawkey, M.Ed., and Lynne M. Borden, Ph.D., Department of Family Social Sciences, Center for Research and Outreach, University of Minnesota
NCFR Report
Content Area
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts

More than 2.6 million members of the U.S. military have deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn, 40% of whom have deployed more than once (Institute of Medicine, 2013, 2014). These deployments involve not only service members but also their spouses/partners, children, parents, and extended family.

Supporting military families across all phases of the deployment cycle is important, and attention to the reintegration phase is especially relevant during the current drawdown from the Middle East. Although a growing literature addresses the reintegration experiences and needs of service members, relatively less research exists regarding their family members.

A review of both congressionally mandated reports and the scientific literature (2012–2015) regarding reintegration experiences of service members, military spouses, and military children revealed that many experience some reintegration challenges upon homecoming; however, most do not develop long-term difficulties. Some period of adjustment is to be expected with the reintegration of the service member back into family life. Most military personnel and their family members demonstrate resilience and adjust effectively to the changes; however, some experience considerable challenges, which may include distress and functional impairment. Furthermore, the challenges do not quickly abate for some military personnel, spouses, and children. For families dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or combat-related injury, reintegration can be especially challenging. Those who experience more difficulty with the transition may benefit from targeted support to resume full functioning in their daily lives. In this article, I explore the experiences of reintegration among service members, military spouses, and military children.

Experience of service members

Overall, service members demonstrate resiliency and adjust to the overall changes within the family during the reintegration process. However, research has documented decreases in service members' mental health and well-being between pre- and postdeployment assessments (McAndrew et al., 2013). Current and former service members diagnosed with at least one psychological disorder increased by 62% from 2001 to 2011 (Institute of Medicine, 2014). These service members face challenges with PTSD, depression, sleep problems, substance abuse, traumatic brain injury, and risky behaviors (e.g., unsafe driving, criminal acts). Service members experiencing these psychological problems are at greater risk for difficulty in role and relationship functioning.

Although attention to psychological well-being is important, providing a range of supports to service members in their social and role functioning during the reintegration process also is vital. Reintegrating into established social and family relationships after deployment can be difficult for service members (Bowling & Sherman, 2008). They may experience challenges in readjusting to the roles of parent (Houston, Pfefferbaum, Sherman, Melson, & Brand, 2013), spouse/partner (e.g., Foran et al., 2013), student (Barry et al., 2014), and employee (McAllister et al., 2015). Several studies of service members' reintegration have documented relationship problems in the first 3 to 6 months after homecoming, including declines in marital quality and increased reports of infidelity (Riviere et al., 2012). In addition, these individuals may report poor financial management and difficulty securing employment upon homecoming (Burnett-Zeigler et al., 2011; Elbogen et al., 2013; Griffith, 2015).

One component of family functioning of concern among military families is intimate partner violence (IPV). Depending on characteristics of the sample, research has found that 13%–58% of military veterans and active duty service members have perpetrated physical IPV (Foran et al., 2011; Marshall et al., 2005). Although research is mixed regarding the role of deployment as a potential risk factor for IPV, male service members with PTSD are at increased risk for perpetrating violence against their intimate partners (Hoyt et al., 2013), with symptoms of anger, hyperarousal, numbing, and reexperiencing being particularly correlated with perpetration of aggression (Hellmuth et al., 2012; Sullivan & Elbogen, 2013).

Experience of military spouses and partners

Across the military, 52% of service members are married (Department of Defense, 2014). There are more than 1 million military spouses; 89% of spouses of active duty service members are female, and 69% have children (Defense Manpower Data Center, 2014). Military spouses manage family life alone during deployments, deal with frequent geographic moves, and can experience disruptions in their employment and education trajectories. Many spouses do well during the reintegration period, especially during the early stages. However, reporting of psychological and relationship problems increases considerably 3 to 6 months after a homecoming (Werber et al., 2013). Little is known about how these issues develop over time and what the trajectories look like after 180 days.

Spouses may experience an array of broader challenges during reintegration, including difficulties with renegotiation of family roles, losing previously enjoyed independence (Bowling & Sherman, 2008), and assuming increased caregiving responsibilities for an injured service member (Ramchand et al., 2014). Spouses may also worry about their children's emotional health, behavior, and academic performance during the reintegration process (Werber et al., 2013). More specifically, military spouses may themselves experience depression, insomnia, stress, anxiety, and alcohol misuse during the stress of reintegration (Blow et al., 2013; Gorman et al., 2011; Mansfield et al., 2010).

Experience of military children

Approximately half of deployed service members in all service branches and components have dependent children (Institute of Medicine, 2013). Nearly 2 million children in the U.S. have been affected by parental deployment to Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom, approximately 900,000 of whom have experienced multiple parental deployments (Flake et al., 2009; Lester et al., 2012). Military children can experience emotional, behavioral, and academic difficulties during reintegration (Chandra et al., 2010, 2011; Engel et al., 2010; Hisle-Gorman et al., 2015; Lester et al., 2010). Changes in family roles and readjusting to new family routines may also be stressful for children (Chandra et al., 2011; Mmari et al., 2009). Parental injury and parental PTSD symptoms can influence parenting (Allen et al., 2010; Blow et al., 2013; Gewirtz et al., 2010; Holmes et al., 2013), which can also affect children's experiences during reintegration.

Conclusion

As the wars in the Middle East move toward an end, it is helpful to not only reflect and maximize lessons learned but also to proactively address reintegration issues for service members, their spouses/partners, and their children. Although a majority of service members and their families are resilient and are unlikely to develop long-term difficulties, research suggests that some families will experience challenges during the reintegration process.

Examinations of the strengths, challenges, and needs of service members, their spouses, and their children can guide prevention, intervention, and outreach efforts. To meet the diverse needs of the population, efforts will need to continue to span a range of modalities and address well-being in a holistic manner across all domains of functioning. Likewise, addressing these needs will undoubtedly continue to be a broad effort, drawing on partnerships among researchers, practitioners, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veteran Affairs, state and community organizations, school systems, businesses, and faith-based communities.

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