SAN DIEGO — Research into the psychological health of the military family shows that fighting men's wives and children generally fare as well as their civilian counterparts despite the unusually stressful circumstances they are exposed to, military officials and researchers say.
Though some studies have shown the detrimental effects on families of frequent moves, father absence and occasional danger, others have found that wives and children may be strengthened by the very same factors.
"My research has shown that most military families adjust to (military life) real well," said Edna Hunter, a Marine Corps wife and researcher who has spent much of the last 20 years investigating the mental and emotional health of the military family. "It is maybe 25% or 30% that have problems. But look at any civilian group and you're going to find that many having problems in the civilian community."
David Cook, social work staff officer for the Department of Defense's Family Policy Office in Washington, said that "When you get down to pathology, the numbers I've seen are that we mostly reflect the civilian population, that we're not too much different from the civilian population.
"We have some unique stressors, but in many ways we have some strong, healthy families," he said. "And, in many ways, it takes strong, healthy families to cope with the military life style."
Wife Called the Key
The key to a well-adjusted military family is very often the military man's wife, who is thrust into the family's most complex role, Hunter and others believe. If she can adapt to her spouse's frequent departures and returns, long absences, the danger he is exposed to, relocation every few years, generally low pay and the unwritten rules of being a military wife, those strengths are communicated to her children and the family usually does well, they said.
"If the mother does OK, the kids are going to do OK," said Hunter, who spent 11 years as a clinical research psychologist at the Naval Health Research Center in Point Loma and nine years on the faculty of United States International University. "So this is one reason the (military) services have come to recognize that you really have to support that spouse."
In a review of the research on the nomadic life styles of military personnel, Cook found many studies that showed no impact on families and an equal number that claimed the frequent moves caused some harm.
According to "Families Under the Flag," which Hunter edited, mobility is a truly mixed experience for military families. Studies show many positive results: broader cultural experience, new educational opportunities, and increased cohesion of family members who soon learn that they may have only each other as constant companions.
Problems include children's difficulties adapting to new environments and the trauma of leaving new friends behind. "The mobility is not much of a problem as long as children are preschoolers," Hunter said. "As children get older, and especially as they get to junior high school age, it becomes more and more of a problem. It is really traumatic for junior high school and high school aged kids to leave their peer groups behind."
What families lack in roots to a particular neighborhood, they often make up in close relationships to other military families, Hunter said. Because of the unusual nature of military life, friends go to extraordinary lengths to take care of each other, knowing that the same things could soon happen to them.
Hunter can still remember the time when a move was delayed and she and her four children were stuck on Guam without a home, furniture or car. Her husband, Daniel, had been whisked away on Marine duty. Friends took in the entire family until Hunter could arrange passage back to the United States, she said.
High Expense of Moving
Most researchers agree that moving is a big financial burden on the family, because wives--most of whom are now employed--must find new jobs and because the family's relocation allowance does not cover its expenses, particularly for consumables that must re-purchased at each stop.
According to Hunter, conventional wisdom is that a military family loses money during the first year of a new assignment, breaks even the second and saves some during the third.
Some services are experimenting with longer stateside tours to combat these complaints, Cook said. The Army has increased the length of some stateside tours from three to four years, he said.
It is difficult to compare military and civilian families when studying some of the most serious family problems, such as child abuse and spouse abuse. Statistics on civilian families are hard to find and usually describe a population that is demographically different than the military sector being studied, researchers said.