US Veterans and Military Families

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been experienced not only on the battlefield; they have reverberated inside the homes of military families left behind in the United States by deploying service members.  When they return, the wars come with them.  Service members cope with the emotional and physical scars and the employment disruptions of their service.  Moreover, more frequent deployment and shorter periods at home between deployments have made this a significantly more difficult set of wars for military families than those of the past. National Guard and Reserve members have been called away for unprecedented periods, affecting both their families and the communities that have gone without their service and their economic contributions.

About 2.5 million service members have been to the wars and returned since 2001.  Almost half have been deployed more than once.  Many times that number of Americans has been affected as spouses, parents, children, and friends: they have each coped with their loved ones’ absence, worried for their safety, and dealt with the changed person who usually returns.  In addition, families often take on the burden of care for their injured relatives even when still housed in military hospitals.  When soldiers come home, they often face a life of physical disability due to their injuries. Almost 700,000 veterans currently have some degree of officially recognized disability as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

The war’s violence has rippled through the nation, affecting families and the communities where they live.  A July 2010 report found that child abuse in Army families was been three times higher in homes from which a parent was deployed, for example. From 2001 through 2011, alcohol use associated with physical domestic violence in Army families increased by 54%, and with child abuse by 40%.  This trend may be associated with research linking increased alcohol consumption with partner aggression among veterans suffering from combat-related wounds, injuries and illnesses. [1]

While resilience is real, the burdens of these wars that have fallen on veterans and their families include higher rates of suicide and mental illness, increased drug and alcohol dependence, higher rates of violence including homicide and child abuse and neglect (the latter both among the parent left behind and by the returning veteran), high risk behaviors that have resulted in elevated numbers of car crashes and drug overdoses, elevated levels of homelessness and divorce, and clinical levels of stress among the children.

The causes of these elevated levels of suffering and chaos in veterans’ and their families’ lives are complex and are not all simply the direct result of combat exposure.  A third of all suicides are in service members never deployed to the war zones.  Some of the elevated rates of interpersonal violence can be accounted for by higher rates of drug use, some of which begins with military prescriptions. The factors contributing to this large number and significant scale of problems are not all fully understood, but the statistics are alarming.  The Department of Defense has resisted measuring some of these problems and has mostly focused on attributing them to individual soldier characteristics.  Most of these problems, however, must be counted as direct and indirect consequences of a decade of war.  (Page updated as of March 2013)

[1] Headquarters, Department of the Army, “Army 2020:  Generating Health and Discipline in the Force,” (January 19, 2012), http://www.army.mil/article/72086/