Post-traumatic stress now a leading concern for military families

The nonprofit Blue Star Families surveys military families and identifies their Top 5 concerns. Other concerns include shrinking retirement benefits and the effect of deployment on kids.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Troops at Bagram Air Base listen to President Obama speak during his visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2.

A new survey that ranks the top struggles and worries of military families finds that after more than a decade of war, soldiers and their spouses are feeling isolated and financially strapped.

The vast majority – 95 percent – point to a civil-military divide, agreeing with the statement that most Americans “do not truly understand or appreciate the sacrifices made by service members and their families.” Another 40 percent say their community “did not embrace opportunities to help military children.”

For the first time, post-traumatic stress was a top concern for families – a development that the survey’s creators found “most surprising,” says Stephanie Himel-Nelson, spokesman for Blue Star Families, the nonprofit made up of troops, veterans, and their spouses that conducted the survey.

Equally surprising, she adds, is that of those who had reported post-traumatic stress in family members, more than 60 percent had not sought treatment for it.

“Post-traumatic stress has never been in the Top 5 [concerns] before,” Ms. Himel-Nelson says.

The questionnaire of some 4,200 military families is designed to uncover “key trends in military family relationships,” according to Blue Star Families. Conducted last November, it delves into views on stress, financial prospects, and the effects of deployments.

It finds that the prospect of shrinking retirement benefits is the No. 1 source of concern for 31 percent of the survey’s respondents. One-fifth cited potential changes in pay and benefits as their top concern, while 7 percent reported that the effect of deployment on their kids was No. 1. And for 6 percent, post-traumatic stress/combat stress was their No. 1 source of concern.

“Multiple deployments, longer separations and the sustained level of OPTEMPO [operational tempo] are taking their toll on military children,” the study notes. “There are lots whose parents have been gone more than half their lives,” adds Himel-Nelson.

According to another study by the RAND Corp., school-age children whose parents frequently deploy have a higher likelihood of developing behavioral problems. More than 60 percent of military families in the Blue Star Families survey said their child’s participation in extracurricular activities was negatively impacted by deployments.

Most of the survey’s respondents say they don’t feel that most Americans understand the plight of the military family. Though striking, the finding is not particularly surprising, Himel-Nelson argues, since less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the US military.

“It’s difficult if you’re not living the life to truly understand it,” she says. “We all agree that appreciation for the troops is so much higher than it was during the Vietnam era – and I don’t think that people are denying that.”

The scarcity of employment prospects for veterans – and the dearth of jobs for spouses of service members – rounded out the Top 5 concerns of respondents. More than half of spouses felt that being a military wife or husband had a negative impact on their ability to pursue a career. Of the 60 percent who were not currently employed, 53 percent said that they wanted to be.

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