For twenty years, America’s military families—America’s military children—were on a war footing. While “America was at the mall” as the saying goes, these families had direct experience of what it meant that America’s military was fighting wars: Being separated from their military parent for long stretches of time due to the uptick in deployments; having to welcome back a parent wounded in combat; having to worry about whether they would ever be able to see their parent again; becoming a “hidden helper;” some, even having to bury their parent. For twenty years, the ranks of Blue Star Families (families where an immediate family member(s) serves during a time of conflict) and of Gold Star families (immediate family member(s) of a fallen service member who died while serving in a time of conflict) swelled.
War didn’t put on hold any of the common rhythms and characteristics of military family life; in fact, it intensified them. And it expanded into the National Guard and Reserves communities many of these experiences, as the federal government decided to put many of these troops on active duty rather than increase the size of the Armed Forces or turn to a draft. And meanwhile, these military kids had to deal with the normal social, emotional, and psychological stresses and pressures of adolescence—while changing homes, schools, friends, and sometimes even countries and cultures, every few years.
Military children remain a severely understudied population. It took until 2011 for RAND to release its first research on the well-being of military spouses and children; 2013 for Princeton University and the Brookings Institution to publish a joint look into such issues; and 2021 for the National Military Family Association to field the first survey of the Military Teen Experience in order to study military teen well-being. What this has meant in practice is that nearly as many myths and cliches exist around military families and children as around their military or veteran parent(s).
In the 1970s, in confluence with all the anti-war upheavals surrounding the Vietnam War, the concept of the “military family syndrome” began to be perpetuated, which “characterizes military families as consisting of authoritarian fathers, depressed mothers, and out-of-control children.” And while many instinctively pushed back against such a characterization, in 2008 researchers were still having to acknowledge that in terms of hard social science data at least, they had “no reliable data to modify or refute the military stereotype.” Thankfully, this has begun to change. But meanwhile, it’s the kids who have to bear on their shoulders the burden of these stereotypes.
Dismantling stereotypes, especially around military veterans and military families, is always a delicate task. Frequently, those stereotypes developed in part because of a new social awareness about some true challenges facing the military community and society in general, such as mental health issues, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress. Raising awareness about the stereotypes, in order to separate out the truth, enables the families themselves, advocates, and policymakers to identify and address the true challenges.
It is not a denial that such challenges exist, or that real harm has not been perpetuated or experienced by individuals in real life. Context matters greatly, as well as building awareness of the whole of the story. As U.S. Marine-turned-award-winning author Phil Klay has put it recently, “Trauma has less to do with a person than with how that person has grown around it. You cannot understand the harm that has been done without understanding the good suffusing the rest of life.”
It’s much the same for America’s Post-9/11 military children. They are on the whole a strong and resilient bunch of emerging adults with experiences that have made them more socially and globally aware and mature than many of their “civilian” peers. Many of these children value their unique experiences and exposure to different communities, countries, and cultures, even while they struggle with the real-world effects of frequent disruptions to their family and school life.
And even while a remarkable 44% of military teens indicate that they plan to serve at some point in the future, with 18% saying that they’ll enlist to serve immediately after high school, rising rates of military children are joining the ranks of the “at risk”—just as their civilian peers are too. According to the results of the Military Teen Experience 2022 survey, the rate of the responsibilities they are carrying has turned heavier, with 46% of military teens reporting having food insecurities (compared to only 11% of U.S. households that experience the same), and 37% reporting thoughts of harming themselves or others (nationally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among those ages 10-24 and 25-35).
In a separate post, I’ll touch on the far-reaching range of challenges particularly related to school that military children and families face. But in general, well-being support and a true understanding of their situations and challenges are vital for military children. This is not simply because many of them are the military force of tomorrow. It’s because they are truly our nation’s future.