Deployments take heavy toll on military children, study says

Longer and more frequent combat deployments are taking a toll on the well-being of military children, researchers say.

A study published last month by the RAND Corporation of Washington, D.C. found that children in military families are more likely to experience anxiety than non-military children. The researchers also found that the longer a parent had been deployed in the last three years, the more likely their children were to have difficulties in school and at home.

Anita Chandra, the study's lead author and a behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, said researchers didn't know what to expect when they began telephone interviews of more than 1,500 11- to 17-year-old military kids and their non-deployed parent or caregiver.

"There's been such little information or research done about how military children compare nationally to other kids," Chandra said. "What we found is that the kids in our sample size had a higher incidence of anxiety and other emotional difficulties than other kids this age in the general population."

Almost all of the families in the study -- 95 percent -- had a family member deploy within the last three years. The deployments lasted an average of 11 months, according to the study. The longer the parent deployment, the more likely it became that the child would experience emotional problems during the separation and immediately following the parent's homecoming, researchers found.

Chandra said that while deployments have long been a reality of military life, the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to take an exceptional toll on the families of those fighting abroad.

"These deployments are very different from what we've seen in the past, both in their length and frequency," Chandra said. "Also, the involvement of the (National) Guard and Reserves is something we haven't seen in the past. These families are really getting used to something that they didn't sign up for."

The study concluded that caregivers and children alike would benefit from programs that specifically target the stresses that come with deployment, particularly for those families who live off-base, which accounted for 70 percent of those interviewed.

In Beaufort, Marine Corps Community Services offers family team building programs and afterschool programs for teens to help ease the sting of deployment, said Amy Banks, MCCS' administrator of Child, Youth and Teen Programs.

"We are aware when a child is separated from a parent due to military school or deployment, and we watch for any changes in behavior that the child may exhibit," Banks said. "We are responsive to the unique needs of children and our ... specialists are on hand to assist ... children displaying challenging behaviors or anxiety due to the absence of a parent."

It is through programs like these and increased community outreach that military families will be able to cope with the stresses of seeing a love one deployed to a war zone, said Kelly Hruska, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Families Association.

"We need to engage military communities like Beaufort to address the problems facing military youth and invest in military spouses," Hruska said. "We need to all come together and begin a national conversation about these issues. There isn't one magic bullet that is going to totally solve the problem."