"Children in military families make sacrifices and serve their country as much as anyone in uniform does.... In so many loving ways, our children quietly shoulder part of the burden, making their mom or dad understand that what they are doing is important."
Most Americans respect and appreciate the service of military men and women to the nation and recognize the magnitude of the sacrifices service members make, especially when deployed during time of war. The majority of citizens, however, are not aware of the ongoing challenges faced by military families. That the separation imposed by deployment takes a toll on family members is obvious, as is the grief they experience when dealing with a loved one's injury or death. But the day-to-day life of military families while together also involves hardships that are not shared by others.
To begin with, few military families have permanent homes. Generally, service members are transferred to a different location every two or three years, or even more often, on short notice and with little if any choice as to where they will go. In military terminology such a transfer is known as a Permanent Change of Station, or PCS, although it is "permanent" only in the sense that they will not return to the home they are leaving. A PCS means packing up all personal belongings and moving to an unfamiliar area. If the family owns a house, they must sell it, sometimes at a loss; and finding a place to live in the new area may be difficult—in many cases they must settle for temporary living quarters. They must leave all of their friends behind and make new ones. The children must leave their schools, dropping out of whatever extracurricular activities are important to them, and enter new schools in the middle of the year when it may be hard to catch up with the classes in which they are placed. And then, in another three years at most, they must go through the same process all over again.
It is common for military kids (or "military brats," the term children of career service members traditionally use for themselves) to attend six to nine different schools between kindergarten and graduating from high school. They sometimes have trouble transferring credits or retaining athletic eligibility. Since academic requirements differ from state to state, graduation may even be delayed.
While transfers are difficult for kids and teens, they are often even more so for the civilian spouse of a service member, who may have trouble finding a job in their new location. Many occupations, such as teaching or nursing, require a state license that cannot be quickly obtained. A military spouse successful in his or her career may be unable to continue it in a different state; he or she may not be able to get work at all, even if the family is badly in need of income. It may be impossible to arrange for childcare. And of course adults, too, must say goodbye to their friends when they move, knowing they may never see them again—just as they may rarely, if ever, see their own parents and extended families.
Life at a military base or post differs in many ways from life outside. Some families live in base housing, while others live off-base, depending on their preferences and the availability of accommodations; but all of them are in close contact with their bases, which are self-contained communities with their own shopping and recreational and medical facilities, as well as their own police. Social life is centered on official FRGs (Family Readiness Groups) and other base support organizations. Shopping at military commissaries and exchanges—on-base stores where prices are lower than elsewhere—is a necessity, considering that military pay, except for high-ranking officers, is often barely sufficient to meet a family's needs. Medical care and admission to theaters, pools, sports facilities, and so forth is free, but only for service members' dependents with official ID cards, which must be shown on entering the base and for every service obtained there. Furthermore, military bases have strict rules and customs regarding conduct, and the military culture fosters conformity. Some family members enjoy the sense of community this provides, while others find it uncomfortably restrictive. Either way, they are bound by it. Since a service member is not free to choose a different lifestyle, neither is his or her family.
Along with these problems comes the stress caused by deployment, during which one parent must take full responsibility for the family's welfare while the other is absent. At a time of loneliness and worry, the parent left without a partner to share the tasks of home maintenance and child rearing bears a heavy load, part of which may be assumed by older children and teens. "Children in military families make sacrifices and serve their country as much as anyone in uniform does," said Marine General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an April 2006 interview. "In so many loving ways, our children quietly shoulder part of the burden, making their mom or dad understand that what they are doing is important."
According to the Department of Defense, as of 2011, counting both active and reserve forces, there were nearly two million US military children, 25 percent of whom were teens. Including families no longer in the military, more than two million children have had a parent deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, and twenty-two hundred have lost a parent there, while at least nineteen thousand have had a parent wounded in action.
Not all military children have even one parent living at home. In 2011, there were forty thousand active-duty military families in which both parents were service members and about seventy-five thousand single-parent families—meaning that their children, plus those of over eighty thousand similarly situated reservists, must go to live with grandparents or other relatives if their parents are deployed.
Whatever the circumstances, for most families missing the absent member and fearing for his or her safety is the worst aspect of deployment. So it would seem that the service member's homecoming would be a time of undiluted joy. But this is not always the case. Many individuals have serious problems after returning from a combat assignment. The experiences they have undergone have often changed them, so that readjustment to normal life is difficult; they may seem like different people to their families even if they are in good health—and certainly if they are not. Family members, too, have been changed by the extra responsibilities they have taken on. The reintegration of the family may take a while. Moreover, because multiple deployments are now common, anticipation of the next absence may interfere with enjoyment of the time spent at home.
Yet despite all these difficulties, the majority of military families adjust well to their lifestyle. It has advantages in addition to the stability provided by a supportive community, including free health care and the service member's steady job. Moving to new locales can be viewed as an adventure. Some families have the opportunity to travel to other parts of the world and reside in different countries. Whether or not this happens, they meet a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds and become able to adapt easily to changing situations. They have a chance to learn first-hand about things the average person may never even read about. And many organizations offer activities for military kids, such as camps and scholarships, that are not open to others.
"The military culture is so unique that being a part of it makes you feel kind of special," explains the National Military Family Association booklet What Military Teens Want You to Know. "Throw in terms like 'American hero' and it's easy to see why teens say they are proud of the job their parents do for the country.... Military teens overwhelmingly name their military parent as a positive role model."
Pride in serving and safeguarding the nation is at the heart of the military culture, and it is shared by spouses and children as well as by those in uniform. "We owe each day of security and freedom that we enjoy to the members of our Armed Forces and their families," President Barack Obama said in his 2010 proclamation of Military Family Month. "Behind our brave service men and women, there are family members and loved ones who share in their sacrifice and provide unending support.... Across America, military families inspire us all with their courage, strength, and deep devotion to our country."