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Kate Sylvester Headshot

Our Military Families Under Fire

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As the recession continues, child advocates are rightfully worried about kids. And now they have a new cause for worry. An entirely new category of children is in jeopardy -- the two million children being raised in military families. As recently as a decade ago, child advocates could afford to ignore military children. After all, they are lucky enough to have at least one working parent; to live in decent housing; and to have health insurance.

But beyond these basics, experts remind us that many other factors can put children at risk for poor outcomes: experiencing family disruption; having a single parent; suffering from abuse or trauma; or having a parent who suffers from mental illness or substance use.

Sadly, these risk factors now apply to many military kids. Why? Because so many of their parents are young, near poor, and coping with serious stresses. Consider these facts:

More than one-third of first-time military parents are 21 or younger; most of their children are under age 5. And a growing number of military families -- over 100,000 at last count -- have two military parents or are headed by single parents.

Most of these young parents don't make much money. Military pays starts at about $2,800 a month (including allowances for food and housing). In the families of junior service members that have only one working parent and more than one child, household incomes often fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- the benchmark that child advocates suggest puts families at risk.

Indeed, a significant portion of children attending Department of Defense schools qualify for receive free or reduced lunches and the most recent estimates about Earned Income Tax Credit indicated that 11.6 percent of military families were eligible to apply.

Finances are not the only stressors on military families. Multiple deployments mean that children face multiple separations from their parents. As Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recent Veteran's Day address, "If you took any 11-year-old or younger military child, it's all they've known their whole lives."

Research is just beginning to tell the story of what those family separations are costing military families.

The National Center for Children in Poverty released a study last year that indicating that while one in five American children has a diagnosable mental health disorder, kids in military families have an even higher incidence of emotional and behavioral problems. Military children are now classified as at risk for mental health problems along with children and youth in low-income households and those in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The latest study on military children, published this month in the Journal Pediatrics, looked at more than a half million military children ages 3 to 8 whose parents were deployed. Researchers found that behavioral disorders, such as attention deficit disorder, increased 18 percent, and stress disorders, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rose by 19 percent when parents were gone.
What researchers still don't know, however, is whether -- and how -- the negative effects of these numerous parent-child separations will persist into adulthood.

The separations take a toll on spouses too. Wives of soldiers sent to war suffer significantly higher rates of mental health issues than those whose husbands stayed home, according to a study on Army wives published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine. And they sometimes take out their frustrations on their own children. One study of enlisted Army families in Texas, for example, showed that the rate of child maltreatment during a combat parent's deployment was 42 percent higher than before deployment; mothers left behind to care for their children alone were the most likely perpetrators of these incidents.

When parents do return home, life doesn't necessarily return to normal. Of the 40,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have come home wounded, many are parents. They suffer not only from severe physical injuries, but also "invisible wounds" such as depression and PTSD. Approximately 18.5 percent of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD or depression, and 19.5 percent report experiencing a traumatic brain injury during deployment, according to a 2008 study by the Rand Corporation.

Yet only about half are getting help. Despite the Pentagon's best efforts, the stigma of a mental health diagnosis discourages many from seeking treatment. And the consequences for their families can be serious; a recent Army study indicated that some combat returnees' coping mechanisms include substance abuse and domestic violence. Indeed, the number of soldiers who commit spousal abuse or child maltreatment has increased by 177 percent in six years.

Finally, joblessness is adding pressure to young families. In March of this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unemployment rate for 18- to 24-year-old vets was a staggering 21 percent -- double that of the general population; average unemployment rate of Iraq -- and Afghanistan-era veterans during the first 10 months of 2010 was 11.7 percent. Many of these young veterans can't support their families.

In these hard times, as policy makers and child advocates continue to watch out for the nation's at-risk children, they need to expand their concern to the two million children growing up in military families. The military community has long taken care of its own. Now it needs some help.

Kate Sylvester and Bruce Lesley are, respectively, vice president for military families and president of First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions.