The U.S. military has sent an astonishing 2.7 million service members to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. While the conflicts have long since faded from the headlines, service members and their families may continue to feel the effects of deployment after it has ended, and not only when a veteran returns with a permanent physical disability or severe psychological trauma.
Yet a large study recently published by the RAND Corporation finds that by and large, military families experiencing deployment return to their pre-deployment levels of family well-being after they are reunited. That conclusion is somewhat surprising in light of prior research linking deployment to problems like a higher risk of divorce and negative behavior among children.
Methodological differences between earlier work and the new Deployment Life Study (DLS) suggest that the findings of the latter may be more accurate. For instance, the DLS research team—led by Terri Tanielian, Benjamin Karney, and Sarah Meadows—surveyed close to 3,000 married couples in different branches of the military, and it measured their outcomes every four months over the course of three years. Not only service members but also their spouses and sometimes a child (if there one in the household between ages 11 and 17) responded to questions separately. Though all participating service members were eligible for deployment within six to 12 months of the baseline interview, some were not deployed at all during the three-year research period, which provided a well-matched comparison group for the families who did experience deployment.
To say that deployment may have fewer long-term effects than generally believed is not to say that the experience is easy. While service members were deployed, they were more likely to show symptoms of depression, and their spouses suffered elevated symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Presumably due to the stress of solo parenting, spouses also exhibited a decline in parenting satisfaction over the deployment cycle.
Many couples returned to their baseline mental status after deployment ended; indeed, the study “found no overall significant effect of deployment on persistent psychological or behavioral health outcomes for service members or spouses.” But when veterans had experienced some form of trauma during deployment, their post-deployment levels of depression, PTSD, and anxiety symptoms remained higher. Similarly, when a service member suffered a physical injury during deployment, spouses displayed lasting increases in these symptoms of mental illness and in rates of binge drinking.
In contrast with overall mental health, marital satisfaction declined significantly over the three-year study among both couples who went through a deployment and those who did not. (As negative as that sounds, it’s not out of line with research on the general American population: couples tend to report the greatest happiness in the first years of marriage.) Divorce and separation among respondents were too rare to be analyzed with confidence. More frequent couple communication during deployment was linked to higher marital satisfaction post-deployment among non-deployed spouses, even once couples’ baseline traits were controlled for.
By most measures, children and teens were not significantly affected by deployment on average, either. The exceptions were that in families who experienced deployment, children under 11 showed (according to their non-deployed parent) worse emotional conduct, more peer problems, and greater need for mental health services than their counterparts in non-deployed families. Though older children and teens in deployed families did not display more behavioral problems, they reported poorer family cohesion and lower relationship quality with their non-deployed parent than teens in non-deployed families. Teens in families experiencing deployment also reported a drop in relationship quality with their deployed parent once the parent had returned.
There were a few domains in which deployment was actually linked to positive outcomes. Members of the military actually report better family environments and greater parenting satisfaction during deployment than before or after—“possibly,” the researchers note, “because they are removed from the day-to-day challenges associated with family life.” Financial distress decreased during deployment in the view of both deployed and non-deployed spouses.
Despite its methodological strengths, the Deployment Life Study does have a few shortcomings. The authors emphasize that because data collection began in 2012, years after the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of the married couples eligible for the study had already experienced at least one deployment. Couples who found their first deployment particularly difficult could have divorced or left the military by the time the study was launched, meaning the study’s sample may have been disproportionately made up of more resilient families. In addition, levels of military conflict were winding down during the study period, so deployments were shorter and rates of injury and death among service members were lower than they were several years before. First-time deployments, lengthy deployments, and deployments in more dangerous conditions may put more stress on families than the average deployment captured in this study.
Even taking this into consideration, the authors were pleasantly surprised by their findings. As Sarah Meadows told the Military Times earlier this month, “Everyone was surprised we didn’t find more negative consequences of deployment. We thought we’d find a lot of negative impacts.” Veterans still face an uphill battle when it comes to employment and mental health, but it’s encouraging to learn that many military families get through deployment just fine.