Military Families Internship: Strengthening families and communities

by Sally Koblinsky, Ph.D., professor, and Zainab Okolo, M.A., undergraduate coordinator, University of Maryland, College Park
NCFR Report
Content Area
Family Science Education

When men and women serve our country, their families also serve. Supporting and strengthening military families is now a national priority. Fewer than 1% of Americans have served in the armed forces during the last decade, yet they and their families have borne the burdens of our nation's longest period of continuous conflict. Among our current troops, 55% are married and more than 40% have children. Although family separations are an intrinsic component of military life, the post-9/11 wars have been characterized by special challenges, including the increased number, length, and unpredictability of deployments.

Multiple and longer deployments strain families, especially when the stress of war affects a service member's reunification with family members and readjustment to civilian life. Some post-9/11 veterans have sustained serious physical injuries, including amputations and traumatic brain injuries. Others have unique behavioral health needs. According to a RAND study of military members who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation Enduring Free-dom (OEF), one in five reports symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Greater cumulative length of deployments has also been linked to more emotional problems among military children and more mental health diagnoses among Army wives. While our U.S. military continues to recruit a first-rate, volunteer force and large numbers of military families exhibit resiliency, it is important that family professionals better understand the challenges faced by military families and apply this knowledge to improving their well-being.

Military Families Internship

One of the challenges involved in promoting resiliency among OIF/OEF military personnel and their families is the short supply of family science and behavioral health professionals who have been trained to identify and meet military family needs. To address this shortage, the University of Maryland's Department of Family Science created a Military Families Internship program in fall of 2011. This internship prepares senior family science students to enhance the readiness, resilience, and well-being of service members, veterans, and families. Students receive training to help military families deal with deployments and family reunification, gain access to services and benefits, and advocate for their needs. Major goals of the program are to:

  • Increase students' knowledge about military culture and military family strengths and challenges
  • Familiarize students with the range of programs and services available to military families
  • Develop students' skills for planning, implementing, and evaluating programs that support military families and military children/youth
  • Improve the capacity of local communities to serve military families
  • Build and enhance university partnerships with state military installations, military health centers, health/social service agencies, and nonprofits addressing military family needs
  • Increase the number of family science professionals in the workforce who have the knowledge, skills, and experience to assist military families.

The goals of our internship program address major priorities of the recent National Leadership Summit on Military Families. In 2009, the University of Maryland partnered with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to bring military family policy makers, program leaders, researchers, and family members together to identify ways to increase the effectiveness of military family support and readiness programs. Our program also com-plements two other internship programs in the USDA/DoD Military Extension Partnership that recruit interns from across the nation. Purdue University's 4-H Military Internship places student interns in child care and youth programs on military bases in the United States and overseas. North Carolina State University's Project Y.E.S! (Youth Extension Service) engages students in a year of service to provide youth development programs for military children nationwide.

While Maryland's Military Families Internship shares many of the goals of the national programs, it recruits students from our university and puts them to work with military families in the local community. Students gain real-world experience with military culture and increase community capacity to foster and sustain resilient military families. Maryland's internship places some students in military child/youth programs, but also prepares students to work with military families in family readiness and human service and family life education programs that focus on health, financial management, housing, employment, parenting, caregiving, and other family issues. The program is one model for land grant and other institutions seeking to strengthen community capacity-building in support of military families and develop a local workforce of professionals prepared to meet military family needs.

Internship Basics

The Military Families Internship was an outgrowth of our required senior internship program in family science. After taking prerequisite courses in family science and human services, students complete a capstone, 120-hour (minimum) internship where they apply classroom learning in professional positions in the community. Although a few military bases and military-focused agencies had previously accepted our students as interns, most students' lack of familiarity with military culture and lifestyles created a steep learning curve that limited their contributions to the internship sponsor. The current demands on military agencies further restricted the amount of time they could devote to sifting through student requests to intern at their sites.

To address these issues, family science faculty initiated contact with nearby military bases, health centers, and agencies serving military families to solicit their interest in hosting an intern. We informed potential supervisors/mentors that all prospective students would be screened by our internship directors and matched with bases/agencies seeking their skills. All of the interns were required to complete an online, 10-module, Military OneSource course on military culture and military families (at no cost) prior to beginning their internships. As in our larger internship program, Military Family Interns must complete a contract with their supervisor/mentor specifying professional learning goals, career fit, internship duties, a supervision plan, and a schedule for progress reviews.

During their placement semester, students attend bi-weekly seminars taught by family science and other university faculty who are engaged in research and service projects involving military families. Seminars provide an opportunity for students to share their experiences and to learn about timely military issues, such as effects of the deployment cycle on families, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and evidence-based interventions for building family resiliency. Local experts who direct military youth programs, behavioral health initiatives, and family support activities present their work at the seminars. A panel of the university's veteran students also offers advice on working with military families. Finally, interns complete a journal and a poster project that enable them to reflect on their work as emerging professionals addressing military family needs.

We began recruiting students for the Military Families Internship in the fall of 2011. Forty-five students applied for the 20 placement sites. The authors interviewed all applicants to assess their interest in military families, familiarity with military life (e.g., parent or spouse in the armed forces), and relevant experience. The response of one student was representative of the group: "I realized that these guys are my peer group … and they've been through so much. … I feel like working with wounded warriors and their families is a way for me to give back." One of the student interns is an Air Force veteran and several have relatives in the military. Many of the students who were not selected (generally because they were not graduating in May 2012) will serve as interns in summer or fall 2012. We also have plans to increase our military internship sites and expand the program to seniors in public health.

Internship Placements

Our Military Family interns are serving in a variety of military and civilian organizations, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Fort George G. Meade, Andrews Air Force Base, Operation Military Kids/4-H, Operation Homefront, Operation Second Chance, Easter Seals Military and Veterans Services, Women Veterans Interactive Foundation, Serving Together/Mental Health Association of Montgomery County, University of Maryland Office of Veteran Student Life, and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Below are brief descriptions of selected internships:

Walter Reed Warrior Family Coordination Cell

The Walter Reed internship involves addressing the daily needs of wounded warriors and their family members in inpatient and outpatient settings. The intern also plans and coordinates events for warriors and family members, works with nongovernmental organizations assisting wounded warriors, and organizes warrior visits for distinguished leaders and visitors.

Easter Seals Military Families Respite Program

Easter Seals interns work with a respite care program for military families who have children with disabilities. They acquaint military parents with the program, recruit caregivers, provide training on quality child care, and make unannounced site visits to evaluate respite caregiver interactions with children.

Operation HomeFront

Operation Homefront internships involve identifying services and sources of emergency financial aid for families of deployed service members and wounded warriors during their period of recovery and transition. Interns assess service member and family needs, acquaint them with community resources, organize family events, and monitor use of transitional housing.

Ft. Meade Army Community Service

Interns at Fort Meade work in the cultural awareness, employment readiness, mobilization/deployment, or volunteer services program. Two students are planning military family readiness activities, including classes that introduce families to the culture of Afghanistan and programs for children/youth whose parents will soon deploy. Another student is developing onsite and online volunteer programming for base families, as well as helping to plan and evaluate a volunteer services fair. These interns also work with family support groups and connect military spouses to programs that address their employment, education, and health needs.

Serving Together

The Serving Together intern participates in a county-wide project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to coordinate and strengthen military and civilian services for troops, veterans, and their families. The intern is helping to map community resources and create a user-friendly, online navigator system that will enable military families to locate and access needed services.

Other internships engage students in a variety of military family activities, including organizing family health/wellness workshops; developing and implementing curricula for Operation Military Kids/4-H programs; working with families on financial management; creating a peer support and advocacy network for women veterans; and helping service members reintegrate into civilian and family life.

Conclusion

University of Maryland's Military Families Internship program can be replicated by other colleges/universities interested in serving military families in their local communities. The program educates students about military family strengths and challenges, provides opportunities for meaningful service, and prepares family professionals to meet military family needs. Through the work of student interns, communities increase their capacity to improve military families' well-being. Although many institutions may not have the diverse network of military bases and agencies found in the Maryland-Washington, D.C., area, most communities have veterans' groups, behavioral health agencies, or youth programs that serve military families, including the National Guard and reserves. A community-based military internship program can provide students with valuable knowledge, skills, and appreciation for the dedicated service of our nation's military families.

Email Sally Koblinsky.