By Bianca Strzalkowski
The ongoing conflicts overseas and rampant military commitments continue to take a toll on today’s force, according to a new report.
The annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey conducted by Blue Star Families (BSF) – an organization supporting military families through career development tools, local community events, and caregiver support, reveals op tempo and financial stability among the leading concerns of the military community. The findings, published this week, cover issues of spousal employment, satisfaction with military life and the state of mental health, among other areas.
Cristin Orr Shiffer, BSF’s Senior Advisor for Policy and Survey, has worked on the last four surveys for the organization. She says among the surprising facts that emerged is the rate of continuous separations families are still enduring.
Deployment fatigue is hurting families
“We saw that the operational tempo has not returned to levels that I think the majority of society kind of perceives it to have – that the wars are over, the military’s downsizing, but the reality is what we’re seeing is that 42% of military families … said that they – the military member or spouse – was gone six months or more out of the last 18,” Shiffer said. “I don’t think the majority of the country understands that almost half of our military is still having their family member gone over a third of the time.”
Marine wife Latoya Wells is among those spouses experiencing weariness over the constant cycle of goodbyes and reunions. Her husband, who is currently overseas, has deployed every year since 2010 and eight times during their 11-year marriage. She says his absence leaves her feeling like a solo parent.
“I feel like I’m a single mom with him constantly being deployed … so it’s almost like I’ve raised these kids by myself and I know for a fact it’s going to be a big adjustment when he comes home, for good,” she said. “I worry about our marriage because I am so used to him being gone. I have my routine down pat so when he is home it throws everything off.”
Wells, who is a mother of two, says she tries to keep the kids connected to their dad by encouraging use of Facetime to help with homework or just have a phone conversation. However, she admits the separations have become the norm for her daughters.
“They don’t know any different. They’re so used to him not being here I don’t think it affects them anymore. There’s almost a detachment there.”
Her husband has at least four years left in the military and she knows, even as he is currently away, that more deployments are on the horizon.
“I dread it every single time. Not even so much I’m worried about him anymore, it is more about adding to the time that we’re apart. The only good thing I can say about when he deploys is it helps our financial situation,” she added.
Employment continues to evade spouses
Financial stability, or lack of it, also trends as a top worry of those surveyed with military spouse employment at the center. Lack of childcare options, frequent moves, and a service member’s work commitments are cited as the most common hurdles to career success. Seventy-nine percent of those who took the survey said they feel their status as a military spouse has a negative impact on ability to pursue a career.
In Gear Career Program Manager Amanda Crowe, who works directly with spouses on growing and establishing careers, says there are ways to make this life work with a career.
“As long as military families continue to move, there will always be a need in terms of military spouse employment. The varied locations within which spouses find themselves often means there isn’t an equivalent position at their new duty station. Licensure and certification is another issue that frequently delays and/or complicates a spouse’s transition to a new career position upon PCS or leaving the service and settling in a new area,” Crowe said.
“My advice is to be very active in your career journey. Be your own advocate. You have to know what you want from a career position and not be afraid to ask for it. Too many military spouses I talk to are afraid to verbalize their goals because in their mind it puts them in a box when they’re really willing to do just about anything to continue working. If you know what you want and talk about that goal to everyone, you’ll be amazed what connections come your way.”
Military spouse preference isn’t working
Blue Star Families will use its findings to guide decision makers as to the realities that exist within military households. Among the staggering figures is 79% of military spouses who applied for a GS position were not hired, even while using the special appointment authority. Cristin Shiffer says that number points to a need to develop relationships between various cohorts.
“I think we need a better inter-governmental approach to spouse employment. It’s ridiculous that we have a large federal government who employs folks and who prioritizes issues of portability but military spouses have been left behind,” she said. “There are also different opportunities… we need to get local bases better about networking spouses. There is a role, both in policy and intergovernmental and within the military at the installation level, opportunities to break down barriers between the GSes working on the base already and the military family community. And not just with employment. I’d like to see a broader collection of folks meeting with spouses, understanding their value so I think that’s part of the issue. Local engagement will help too.”
Over 8,000 respondents weighed in on the current state of quality-of-life for those in uniform, their spouses and children. Shiffer says much work lies ahead for this community as the impact of continuous war finally takes shape.
“These are lasting issues and it takes a while for them to come to the surface and that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the legacy of war,” she said. “But we’re also seeing when we look at the military spouse rate, we’re seeing a very stressful lifestyle and I think people don’t talk about that enough.”
To read the complete report by Blue Star Families, visit the website at https://bluestarfam.org/survey/
Bianca Strzalkowski is a freelance writer and editor. A proud Marine Corps wife of 14 years, she has experience in news reporting, social media management, and content marketing. In 2011, she was named as Armed Forces Insurance’s Military Spouse of the Year for her volunteer work and advocacy within the military community. Because of her volunteerism, the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, awarded her with a Certificate of Commendation.
Prior to her freelance writing career, Bianca was the Deputy Director of Membership for Blue Star Families and former Managing Editor of The Onslow Times. She is media trained and has appeared in interviews for television, radio, and print to include Fox News, CNN, and Oprah.
Currently, Bianca resides in Jacksonville, NC with her husband and three children. She is a member of the Military Reporters & Editors Association and serves as an advisor for The MilSpo Project. Connect with Bianca on Twitter.