Military Fosters Strong Families, Advocates Say

Times Staff Writer

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.

The Defense Department lists 7,904 substantiated cases of child abuse in fiscal year 1986, or about 5 per 1,000 children in military families, according to Kathy Furukawa, technical information specialist at the Pentagon.

The American Assn. for Protecting Children reports that 30.6 children per 1,000 were abused or neglected in 1985. No statistic for abuse alone was available.

Spouse abuse in military families occurred at a rate of 9.73 per 1,000 during fiscal 1985, Furukawa said. No comparable number for the civilian population was available.

But after two studies of family violence in military families, a South Carolina psychologist concluded that high stress in general, not a job that involves violence, is the best predictor of spouse abuse in military families.

Drill Instructors Studied

In a survey of 258 Marine drill instructors in 1984 and 373 Army drill sergeants in 1986, clinical psychologist Peter Neidig found that 34% and 46%, respectively, admitted at least one episode of violence with their spouse in the previous year.


Those populations were chosen because their jobs are seen as among the most stressful in the military, said Neidig, president of Behavioral Science Associates in Beaufort, S.C. Because the results are based on self-reporting, Neidig suspects the actual figures probably are higher.

“It’s not really the violence of the job that somebody’s doing that leads to violence (in the home), but other indices of stress such as the number of hours they put in on the job and the number of deployments,” he said. For those reasons, Neidig found that military cooks and band members are at high risk for abusing their spouses.

But the military life style may also be a factor, Neidig said. “One of the things that we noticed in our drill instructors is that they are highly trained in issuing orders, giving directives, detecting flaws and shortcomings, and being rather hyper-critical,” he said.

“Of course, all of these traits, if they’re engaged in in the home environment, could contribute to marital conflict, with the potential of escalation to violence.”

Such behavior may also be exacerbated by alcohol (11.9% of U.S. military people declared themselves heavy drinkers in a 1985 worldwide Department of Defense survey); age (the military population tends to be young), and socioeconomic class (enlisted men, especially, tend to be poorer than the general population), researchers said.

Military officials are very quick to claim that the swaggering “Great Santini” personality who treats his family as just one more band of recruits is extremely rare.

“There are Great Santinis, but, strange as it may seem, our Navy fathers are very caring people,” said David Smith, acting director of the Navy Family Support Program. “They understand about things like fathers bonding with their children. They care about their kids, they’re into being a father. They coach Little League, football.”

The Navy in recent years has begun to help families cope with the frequent father absence that is an unavoidable part of life in that service. Fathers are encouraged to send letters, tapes and cards back from ships, and to remember birthdays, Cook said.

“The kids can cope quite well if the mother copes well,” Cook said. “If the mother goes to pieces, the kids pick that up.”

But some research has linked father absence to problems in a child’s later development, trouble adjusting in school, and excessive dependence by male children on their mothers.

With some research showing that reunions--not absences--are the toughest period because of the abrupt changes that all family members must make, Navy counselors are now advising seamen and their families in the days just before reunions at Navy bases in places like Norfolk, Va., said William Coffin, director of the Defense Department’s Family Policy Office.

Hunter traces the growth of such programs to 1973, when conscription was replaced by the all-volunteer military, and the new recruits brought the impact of the women’s movement and changing family demographics into the service with them.

Today, for example, one of the most pressing social issues in the four services is how to provide child care for the huge number of working women married to military men, she said. In order to keep high-quality men (and women) in the four services, the brass now realize they must take care of their families too, she said.

“There was total disregard for family needs 20 years ago . . . " Hunter said. “But what they found out in the 1970s was that if we want to keep those kind of men in the military, we have to look out for the families.”