Veterans’ families: they both support and need support

In a previous article I welcomed the acknowledgement by the UK Ministry of Defence that veterans’ families are often the key to a successful military to civilian transition by that veteran, but also need support.

Here, I briefly explore why that is.

I have previously focused on some of the challenges that Service leavers face when leaving the armed forces, and this article can be found here.

But what is evident, both from my own experience, and by looking at this in more detail, is that a ‘military’ family is frequently right at the heart of this challenge, both in a supporting role—and perhaps more crucially—also potentially in need of support.

Let’s first look at the ‘military family’, in terms of how enmeshed that family might become in the broad military life. This is centred on my own experience and the research I have conducted in the UK context, but I suspect it applies to many other countries also.

As former soldier Dr David Walker notes in relation to his focus on the British Army:

careers are deliberately embroiled with family life since Army managers have long recognised that it is necessary to provide for families in order to keep soldiers happy (of course this implies certain assumptions about the way service families live their lives). This is a logic built into Army life in which service families’ accommodation (SFA) allows for communal living […] that is thought necessary as a consequence of constant postings, and building supportive communities that will sustain families while soldiers are deployed.

(Walker, 2010, p. 142)

So, it is not just serving members of the military that live in that ‘self-contained social world’ (Brotz and Wilson, 1946, p. 371), but often their close families too.

While I have argued that military life can have an institutionalising effect on the serving member of that institution, Ruth Jolly also suggests—based on her research among veterans and their families—that military partners are often more institutionalised than the serving member. This can particularly be the case if that partner is themselves from a military background, and/or their social and professional lives have been long conducted in the military environment (Jolly, 1996). This can also have an impact on children, who may well be accustomed to frequent moves (and changing schools and friends among a wider military community), but much less accustomed to life outside that community (Jolly, 1996).

Whether that is the case or not may be debatable (please go ahead and debate in the comments section below if you have views on this), but what appears more defensible is that leaving the military is not just a challenge for the Service leaver.

Indeed, David Walker goes on to say that:

This provision of housing, frequent family moves, and the related need to eventually buy a house (or to find housing) are all institutional practicalities that can present significant—and predictable—hurdles at Army exit. These factors often draw into exit, issues of work for spouses, children’s education, and wellbeing that become entangled with decisions about how and under what circumstance soldiers will eventually leave the Army.

(Walker, 2010, p. 142)

And Ruth Jolly underlines this in reminding us that where there is a family, it is not just the Service leaver that departs the armed forces, but indeed it is often the whole family.

This change can also go far beyond the shock of leaving the institutional embrace of the military. Where a military role can take that Service member away from the family home for long periods at a time, and/or with great frequency, this can ‘normalise’ a situation in which this Service person is almost an absentee member of the household. What is not normal thereafter is that having left the military, the veteran is spending much more time in the family home than previously. This in itself can be the cause of great tension (Jolly, 1996), and indeed can come on top of all the other transitionary issues to contend with when leaving the armed forces.

What may also not be ‘normal’ anymore, is a situation in which the exit from the military is as a result of physical or psychological injury/illness sustained by the Service person, or indeed a psychological reaction caused by the pressure or dislocation caused by an exit from the military. In the latter case, as I have inferred, this can have an effect on family members of the Service person too.

This is particularly pertinent to my own exit from the British Army on account of illness, where, were it not for the support of my family, my transition would have been immeasurably harder, if not impossible. If for no other reason than that, I wanted to—albeit briefly—acknowledge that it is not just the Service leaver that is affected by the transition out of the military, but the family too.

So, it is of great encouragement that this impact is being recognised in the UK and Canadian contexts, where I have focused the majority of my research.

Disclaimer: While this is not an in depth analysis (my doctoral studies—due to various limitations—have been necessarily focused on the Service leaver), this is an issue I at least want to recognise here, and perhaps provoke some debate, and/or indications of further research in this area. So, if any of this sparks any interest in you, I would encourage you to please comment below.

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