"Service members enlist. Their families are drafted."
That familiar refrain has been uttered time and time again on American military bases across the globe during these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's a lot of truth found in it, and such a reality rarely ends when a service member returns home.
Take Marine Sergeant Stephen Inman and his wife Bethany, for example. They've both sacrificed proudly for our country through Stephen's three deployments -- two tours in Iraq and his most recent tour to Afghanistan. A month before Stephen left for his last deployment, the Inmans found out they were expecting their first baby. The couple thought Stephen might be able to return early to witness the birth, but deployment needs dictated otherwise. As a result, Bethany gave birth to their daughter, Khloe Rae, without Stephen at her side. Though it had been the circumstances of the situation, not a personal choice, Stephen blamed himself for being away at war when Khloe was born. Meanwhile, back home Bethany dealt with all the labors of new parenthood alone, juggling the mortgage, the car payments and bouts of anxiety and depression.
The Inmans' are just one couple of millions who have faced the challenges of service. Since 9/11, over 3 million Americans have had a spouse or parent deploy in these wars. As the Iraq war ends, this small minority is exactly why IAVA is launching a new program for military families inspired by the findings in our latest issue report Unsung Heroes: Military Families After Ten Years of War. Be the first to read it online and share it with your own friends and family.
The report findings should be a gut-check for every American heading home to their own families this holiday season. For ten years, through two of the longest wars in American history, military families have braved unique challenges with the same strength and resilience as their loved ones fighting overseas. But the strain of multiple deployments and the economic crisis are taking a heavy toll.
Unlike the World War II generation that rallied around those on the home front, American society nowadays is generally clueless about the sacrifices these families face. Service members of this generation are deploying two, three, even four times, and the abnormal has become normal for their families. As a result, a third of military spouses whose partners deployed were diagnosed with anxiety, depression, sleeping problems and other mental disorders according to a recent study. Meanwhile, their kids are also feeling the pressure of frequent moves and households managed by single parents. A 2009 study found that one-third of children between ages five and twelve who experienced parental deployment had a high likelihood of developing social and psychological problems.
If the emotional toll of war and separation isn't enough on a family, the economic crisis at home is causing more stress. As the U.S. military surged in Iraq, foreclosures in military communities back home spiked by 32 percent between 2008 and 2010. Over 20,000 service members lost their homes to foreclosure last year alone. And, according to the latest figures, over 26 percent of military spouses were unemployed in June -- the national average was 9.2 percent.
The challenges these military families are facing won't end with the deployments, of course. The reunion of family members can be an exciting and happy time, but it can also cause stress and unforeseen emotional challenges. And increased rates of mental health injuries are associated with higher rates of substance abuse, child maltreatment and incidents of domestic violence.
Like the old saying goes, you can't build a house on a shaky foundation. Unsung Heroes highlights the challenges involved in strengthening military families like the Inmans. But it also offers concrete, practical recommendations to support them.
In Washington, IAVA is pushing legislation like the Military Spouse Continuity Act to secure benefits for military families long after these wars end and to make it easier for spouses to keep work when they move. We're also calling for a job training partnership between the Departments of Defense and Labor to help military spouses build skills and expand their career opportunities. And we're calling on the President and First Lady to issue a nationwide call to recruit mental health professionals to support these families through the emotional strains of deployment and reintegration.
Across the rest of the country, we're also asking the private sector to step. We're partnering with Citi, Veritas Prep and others to provide free education and job resources for vets and their spouses. And we're enlisting the help of Americans who've walked in these families shoes -- like Holly Petraeus (the Assistant Director for the Office of Servicemember Affairs for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and wife of General David Petraeus) -- to host free online chats for military families about financial protections and more.
When the White House launched the Joining Forces initiative in April 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama's message was loud and clear: Americans have an obligation "to recognize and serve our nation's extraordinary military families who, like their loved ones in uniform, serve and sacrifice so much so that we can live in freedom and security." No military family should have to bear the brunt alone of what should be a national effort.
So take a few minutes today to learn about these unsung heroes among us. After all that military families have done for us over the last decade, putting ourselves in their shoes this holiday season is the least we can do.
Have a loved one serving overseas? Sign up and submit your questions for IAVA's online chat with Holly Petraeus, the Assistant Director for the Office of Servicemember Affairs for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the wife of General (Ret.) David Petraeus, about financial protections for military families this Thursday, December 8th at 3pm EST.
Cross-posted at IAVA.org.