The study’s findings immediately took me back to 2013, the year my husband was first deployed to Afghanistan. He’s in the Air Force, and we had done the long-distance relationship dance before. But deployment adds layers of stress that might be hard for outsiders to see.
Anxiety ramps up during the pre-deployment stage and continues to be heightened during deployment, according to the RAND study. Researchers followed multiple members of the same military family, collecting information at four-month intervals over three years, following about 2,700 families who experienced deployments between 2011 to 2015. In their responses, I saw my own family.
Before my husband had even left, I worried about his safety as he prepared to be away for six to seven months. He reassured me that his plane (the MC-12) had never crashed, though it had been flown in more than 400,000 combat missions in Afghanistan. He tried to calm my fears by saying things like, “I’m probably more safe in the air over there than you are here on California roads.” As he left from the airport dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, the juxtaposition of seeing him in civilian clothes, getting on a commercial airplane and leaving me to go to war was confusing and scary. I immediately felt lonely.
Less than two weeks later, another military spouse called me to say that an MC-12 had crashed in Afghanistan, either in Bagram, where my husband was, or Kandahar, where her husband was. My heart stopped. We eventually learned the crash had not involved either of our husbands. But while we breathed sighs of relief, our hearts ached—somewhere out there was a spouse we didn’t know who was shedding tears of sorrow.
For me, the crash remains a reminder of how military service impacts the lives of the family members left behind at home. My husband still serves, and there are likely more deployments and related stress ahead of us. We have a lot of company—even when serving during a time that is considered safer, 60 percent of active-duty spouses and half of active-duty service members identified deployment as a top stressor in the 2015 Blue Star Families’ annual Military Lifestyle Survey.
RAND’s Deployment Life Study was designed to examine how deployment affects the health and well-being of military families and to help the Department of Defense, policymakers, and service providers better prepare families for deployment. Preparation and communication were found to be critical factors in explaining which families do better or worse after the service member returns from deployment.
The stress felt by families, whether or not they were dealing with deployment, can lead to decreased military satisfaction, commitment, and retention among service members, the survey found. Yet the most common theme in the Deployment Life Study was something else I know well—military families are resilient.
First deployments may harm marriages but those that survive the initial shock “may prove resilient to the stresses of future deployment,” the study observed. I know this to be true in my marriage, but I want it to be true for every military spouse.
The RAND survey underscores the significant challenges and sacrifices that accompany deployments. Tens of thousands of service members continue to serve away from their families for prolonged periods each year. Their families end up serving, too.
M.M. Smith holds a master’s of public policy and is passionate about, and works in, K-12 education policy. She enjoys hiking, rock climbing with her husband and reading Southern Living magazine when she is missing home. You can find the Deployment Life Study here..