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Breaking the Military Family Stereotypes

Ann Marlowe

Every time there’s a scandal among our military overseas, the stereotypes pop up. One of them is that most of our warriors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and have been broken by repeated deployments to combat zones. Another is that they represent the poorest and least educated segments of our society and have chosen the military because they can’t get other jobs.

I’ve found all of this to be false in my time with the Army in Afghanistan. And a survey of military families released on May 9th suggests that, contrary to the stereotype, military families are healthy and resilient, and have much higher rates of civic engagement than most Americans.

The survey shows that PTSD and repeated deployments aren’t the top concerns to most family members—less than 8 percent of respondents ranked these as their number one issue, as opposed to 31 percent who were concerned with upcoming changes to retirement benefits (see page 9 in the report). However, 26 percent of respondents felt that their deployed family member had shown signs of PTSD, though just 3 percent had a diagnosis. Only 1 percent of family members reported being injured by a PTSD-afflicted service member, and 5 percent reported feeling fear. This suggests that for the vast majority of service members, PTSD is a manageable problem.

The survey of more than 4,000 members of military families of all service branches, representing both enlisted personnel and officers, is an annual poll conducted by Blue Star Families, a group devoted to helping military families.

The survey didn’t dig deep on economic issues, but one stereotype-busting result is that 92 percent of military family members said that serving their country was the most important reason to join the military—followed by educational benefits. Only a small percentage reported having resorted to the notorious payday lenders, and 59 percent of military families reported owning their own home, slightly lower than the national average of 67 percent, but understandable given that many military families live on posts and move very frequently.

What impressed me the most in the survey results, though, was the high levels of civic participation shown by military families. One might think that, say, a young wife and mother trying to parent two small kids by herself, or the parent of a deployed service member pitching in as a grandparent, would be less likely to have the time or energy to get involved in the community. Yet 81 percent of family members volunteered in the past year, compared with just 26.8 percent of all Americans.

Military family members have high rates of voter registration and voting as well. Eighty-nine percent are registered to vote, compared with
71 percent of all Americans, and 82 percent voted in the 2008 presidential election, as compared with 64 percent of all voting-age Americans.

Is the all-volunteer force broken, as some have recently charged? Not according to these families. I personally support some form of conscription to equalize the burden of defense and foster socialization
across class and regional lines, but among military families, 82 percent think that the volunteer force works well, and 70 percent are satisfied with their lifestyle.

Now, there is bound to be some selection bias in a voluntary survey of this sort—I’d imagine that families that are reeling from dysfunction or tragedy aren’t likely to respond to the survey—but likewise, if PTSD or overseas service were a huge concern, I’d expect that affected families would seize on a survey like this as a great way of making their feelings known to the public at large. What the results indicate, contrary to elite stereotypes, is that our military is one of our more healthy and robust institutions.

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