Army study explores deployment stress on soldiers’ children

A recent monograph published by the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., sheds new light on how children are coping with parents' multiple deployments after eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The study, "The Effects of Multiple Deployments on Army Adolescents," reinforces much of the conventional wisdom regarding stress and deployments, but it also breaks new ground, mainly in finding no clear link between the number of deployments soldiers undertake and the level of stress their children experience.

"With almost a million children in Army families, the absence of a deployed parent will likely influence a generation of adolescents," wrote authors Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, both retired Army officers and now professors at the Army War College.

Wong and Gerras examined the effects of multiple deployments through the eyes of the 2,006 soldiers they surveyed (all of whom had adolescent children and 36 percent of whom were deployed at the time), along with 718 spouses and 559 children between the ages of 11 and 17, who completed parallel versions of the study. In addition, the researchers interviewed more than 100 children at eight Army installations during the summer of 2009.

Many previous studies relied exclusively on adult perspectives -- usually from the spouse of the deployed soldier -- to assess stress levels among children, the authors noted.

Previous research showed that parents clearly associated multiple deployments with higher levels of stress among their children. Yet the Wong-Gerras study found that was not the case. Surprisingly, children aged 14 to 16 with a parent deployed reported lower stress levels than those without.

"Why would soldiers perceive a cumulative effect of deployments while adolescents report a trend of decreasing stress with each deployment?" the researchers asked. "Perhaps soldiers tend to keep a teary farewell or an emotional phone call as the salient memory of their child during a deployment. Parents may tend to forget or at least not realize that children often mature through hardships.

"Adolescents, on the other hand, may be reporting that instead of accumulating higher levels of stress with each new deployment, they have learned new coping strategies from previous experiences. In any case, the finding was unexpected, yet encouraging," Wong and Gerras wrote.

The researchers also found a surprising 56 percent of children reported they coped well or very well with a parent's deployment, while 17 percent said they coped poorly or very poorly.

"Before celebrating the unexpectedly high percentage of adolescents who claimed they handled deployments well, we must remember that the results can be extrapolated to imply that over 20,000 adolescent children in active-duty Army families alone are not coping well with deployments. … If one out of every six Army adolescents reports doing poorly with repeated deployments, the situation can hardly be considered acceptable," Wong and Gerras wrote.

Another interesting finding of the study was a majority of children did not know how many times their parent had deployed since Sept. 11, 2001.

"While this lack of knowledge initially surprised us, upon reflection it made sense," the report noted. "A 13-year-old girl, for example, may be unable to recount her experience with deployments from the time she was a 5-year-old. Nor is it unreasonable for a 12-year-old boy enduring his third deployment to be unsure whether his deployed father is currently in Iraq or Afghanistan."

The authors found that high participation levels in activities -- especially sports, a strong family and an adolescent's belief that the country supports the war in which his parent is fighting were important factors in lower stress levels. The strongest predictor of ability to cope, they noted, was the child's perception that his parent was making a difference.

"Multiple deployments have become a way of life for our soldiers," wrote Gen. Charles Campbell, the top officer at Army Forces Command, in a foreword to the study. "This study goes beyond merely explaining the impact eight years of war is having on the children of our soldiers; rather, it explores specific factors that increase or alleviate stress on Army adolescents."

As such, the study and should influence policymakers, military leaders and parents "in this era of persistent conflict," Campbell wrote.

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