Hitting home: Domestic terror and military uncertainty

2015-12-11-1449861433-1215720-ScreenShot20151211at1.47.56PM.pngUsually, during the second or third year of my husband's tour of duty in the Navy, I start waking up at dawn, my mind swirling with questions.

What's next? Where will we live? How will we afford it? Will I be able to find work? What about the kids?

I wondered if I was having a mid-life crisis, but it turns out that 40% of military families feel the same way I do.

Military folks are increasingly uncertain about the future, according to Blue Star Families 2015 Survey results released recently. For the 6,291 service members, veterans and family members who took the survey, the top concerns contributing to growing uncertainty and financial insecurity were threats to military pay and benefits, changes to retirement benefits, spouse employment difficulties, post-service transition, and the rise in active duty and veteran suicides.

The comprehensive survey, now in its sixth year, is conducted in collaboration with Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families to gain insight into the unique challenges faced by the military community and to make recommendations regarding sustaining our all-volunteer force.

Although the results were released on October 28, they seem particularly newsworthy now, in light of the recent uptick in international and, as of last week, domestic terrorist attacks that will require military involvement. A few of the surprising statistics:

Although 94% of respondents joined the military to serve their country, only half would advise their own children to serve. Since 84% of recruits come from military families, there is new concern about adequately sustaining our all-volunteer military. As Michael O'Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institute said about the survey results, "Even military families are increasingly doubting whether they want to wish this same life on their children. . . not out of any lack of patriotism or a sense of public service. It's an awareness of how hard it can be."

Even though 82% of respondents said they joined the military for financial security, 65% of service persons and their spouses said that they were worried about military pay and compensation. One Army spouse surveyed said, "The contract that my Soldier signed with the government has been turned inside out, leaving us with an uncertain future financially. We can no longer 'bank' on the government to take care of their original obligations to all service members and their family members. I personally am so frustrated by all the issues, I am recommending both of my active duty sons finish their contracts and get out of the military."

Military spouse employment continues to be a major concern. Fifty-five percent of spouses are not employed (more than five times the national average), and of those, 58% want employment. Seventy-five percent of spouses said military lifestyle had a negative impact on their ability to pursue a career.

There is growing worry over unexpected expenses associated military life. One-third of military families said they pay out of pocket housing costs, and 73% said there were other unexpected expenses related to military life such as unreimbursed moving costs.

"There are a lot of conversations around the dinner table about whether to stay in or get out," Cristin Orr Shiffer, deputy director of research and policy for Blue Star Families said in a Military Times article. As Shiffer put it, military families are keeping their "eyes on the exits."

Although 87% of veterans felt that military service had prepared them for leadership as civilians, 40% rated the transition process as difficult or very difficult, and 47% of post 9-11 veterans said they were not able to find jobs in their preferred career fields.

Regarding the psychological wellness of post 9-11 veterans, 14% "seriously thought about committing suicide during their time in the military (7% in the past year). Nearly 27% of post-9/11 veterans reported frequent symptoms of stress and 13% reported moderately severe or severe symptoms of depression."

In a telephone interview, Shiffer told me that, although news of the survey results reached a record number of media outlets this year, more can be done to engage and inform the public. With only 1% of the population serving in the military, news is naturally targeted toward media consumers who are primarily civilian.

"I don't see [civilians] as disinterested, but rather not understanding military issues," Shiffer said. "Talk to your neighbors. People want to help, but they don't know how - that's where we come in. Blue Star Families exists to connect America to its military."

As a 22-year Navy spouse, the survey results really hit home. And now, with the recent news that bloody terrorist massacres are being spawned in our own neighborhoods, civilians also have a reason to lie awake at dawn and wonder what the future holds for our military.

[The Blue Star Families 2015 Infographic shown here can be found as a PDF file at https://www.bluestarfam.org/sites/default/files/docs/bsf_infographic_final.pdf.]