Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

How teenage Army dependents handle repeated parental deployments

By Matthew Acocella Best Defense military families correspondent In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama announced that the First Lady Mrs. Obama and Second Lady Mrs. Biden would spearhead a new initiative to support military families, with an accompanying $8.8 billion increase in the 2011 DOD budget for programs benefiting military spouses ...

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

By Matthew Acocella

Best Defense military families correspondent

In last week's State of the Union address, President Obama announced that the First Lady Mrs. Obama and Second Lady Mrs. Biden would spearhead a new initiative to support military families, with an accompanying $8.8 billion increase in the 2011 DOD budget for programs benefiting military spouses and children, the biggest of which will go towards expansion of counseling and child care services.

By Matthew Acocella

Best Defense military families correspondent

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama announced that the First Lady Mrs. Obama and Second Lady Mrs. Biden would spearhead a new initiative to support military families, with an accompanying $8.8 billion increase in the 2011 DOD budget for programs benefiting military spouses and children, the biggest of which will go towards expansion of counseling and child care services.

There is a growing recognition of the toll that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking on the families of men and women in uniform, particularly when parent-soldiers are being deployed multiple times within a span of a few years.

In a timely new study, two Army War College researchers, Drs. Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, examined the effects that multiple deployments have on adolescents of active-duty soldiers and presented their findings at a roundtable discussion today at the Pentagon. Gerras and Wong received survey responses from 2,006 Army soldiers who had at least one child between the age of 11 and 17. They also had the bright idea of asking the kids themselves to fill out the survey, a step that several other recent studies on the subject have failed to take.

Gerras and Wong made a few surprising discoveries. Here are some interesting takeaways:

  • Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study found that with each additional deployment, the adolescent’s stress level actually decreases (but not beyond the 4th and 5th deployment). Gerras and Wong speculate that Army adolescents mature and increasingly learn to cope with each new deployment, and that there is no evidence that multiple deployments have a cumulative negative effect on their mental health.
  • Army adolescents are a lot more optimistic about their own well-being than their deployed parent.
  • 14-16 year olds have noticeably less stress about a deployed parent than other ages according to Stephen Wong, who cited interview responses that said the absence of a disciplinarian made life easier. The stress level of 17 year olds goes back up, however, because they keenly feel the absence of a deployed parent at important life events, like high school graduation, sports matches, and the college or job search. A "flat daddy" would be a lousy substitute at these rites of passage.
  • The two best predictors of an adolescent being able to successfully cope with having a deployed parent are the beliefs that their mom or dad is making a difference in the world and that the American public supports the war. It also helps if you are from a ‘strong family’ and play sports. (Let’s get those pasty teen Warcraft players out into the sunshine!)

The authors stressed that Army adolescents are a lot more sophisticated and resilient than people often give them credit for, and the study found that only 17 percent of adolescent respondents were doing ‘poorly or very poorly’ in the absence of an Army parent. This may be a relatively low number statistically, but it means that nearly 20,000 Army kids are really hurting across the country. Gerras and Wong have been briefing numerous officials at the Pentagon on their findings, so let’s hope some of that $8.8 billion quickly goes towards making a real difference in the lives of kids adversely affected by their parent’s service and sacrifice.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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