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One Person Wears the Uniform, but the Whole Family Serves

Posted By Kent Corso, Wednesday, June 1, 2016



Those who volunteer to enter the military are required to make career central to their lives. The military represents one large "unit” for the active duty service member which is then broken down into many smaller units. A very distinct identity develops for the service member first at the level of branch – Army, Navy or Marines and Air Force, then within one’s specialty or occupational code. Finally, identity arises from rank, role within the immediate unit and through contributions to the shared mission of the unit and the larger units. Like members of collectivist cultures, military service members tend to measure their worth in reference to their relationship with the larger group or unit, the entire specialty, rank, or branch. Herein lies an immense source of strength, a factor that emboldens and protects many service members when they deploy, are worn out, or are tired of moving their family every 3 years. It is the constancy of the military unit – the military family which helps them maintain a sense of control, predictability, normalcy and value. But what about the service member’s "actual” family?

It is less often discussed, but families also make the military central to their lives - some willingly, and some with significant reluctance. When children attend school on a military base, it becomes part of their identity – growing up as a military child. When civilian wives or husbands live on or off the military base, it impacts their lives. Service members have demands which extend beyond "normal duty hours”, which means the spouses manage the family and home, sometimes without advanced notice. Yet, the spouses may also have a full time job. Additionally, when there are unit events (pre-deployment gatherings, fundraisers, base community events) spouses are expected to participate. For many of these events, the military provides programming for the children as well. This makes all family members part of the same mission.


Spouses of service members often affiliate and rely on one another. For example, there are deployed spouses groups who meet regularly for socializing, sharing resources, and for mutual support while their loved one is deployed. When a service member moves to a new base, another member’s family is the sponsor. This means that the families of active duty help one another acclimate to the new base. After all, they share many of the same challenges and resources. Ultimately, the unit serves as a source of stability for the family, and the family becomes part of that larger unit.


However, there may be aspects of the unit and this new "family” which are not so stabilizing. For example, there are times when service members are not allowed to deploy if they are undergoing mental health treatment. If the service member cannot deploy, he or she may feel a sense of shame, for letting the unit down. Likewise, the family feels ashamed, while also being spurned by other families and members of the unit. In this way, there is pressure from within the unit and its families to do one’s part in the larger mission.


The culture of the military, which also extends to the family, prides itself in being highly performing. Seeking help – particularly from outside the unit or the unit’s spouses, is aversive. This aversion has persisted because when service members have certain diagnoses or are taking some types of medications, they may be required to surrender their firearm (e.g., military police). If they cannot not do their regular job or they cannot deploy, they are perceived as not high performing and not fulfilling their duty within the larger group. In short, there may be a feared or actual negative impact on their career. For these same reasons, some spouses may also avoid seeking the mental healthcare they need. This is driven by fear that their active duty partner’s commander will discover this, thereby negatively impacting their active duty partner’s career.


Imagine family members who are so dedicated to their active duty spouses and the military, that they will avoid treating legitimate personal or familial medical conditions so that they do not disrupt the homeostasis of the military unit. For better or for worse, this is how central the military becomes to the active duty person and his or her family. It defines their lives. But what happens to service members and their families when service ends?

Only after conducting military cultural competency training to civilian healthcare providers in the years after concluding my military service, did it become clear to me why so many veterans and their families struggle when their service concludes. Consider the two things which define military experiences: the unit and the mission. In the civilian world neither is clear, if present at all. For X years the family, children and service member are indoctrinated into the military – acculturated into its lifestyle and its structures. They learn to rely on these structures and cultural elements to excel professionally, to tolerate the frequent moves, to survive the arduous deployments. And when times are the worst, they may keep in mind that they are not alone; there is a unit. They may remind themselves that all the hardship is not for nothing; there is an important mission they are contributing to.


But, when entering the civilian world, everything changes. The family remains intact, but even it has been removed from its larger military family, which it identified with and relied upon. In essence, the family and service member are on their own. There is no longer a unit. Second, there may not be a clear mission. Few civilian jobs offer the same higher mission as the military - fighting for freedom. Part of what enabled the military families and members to endure the challenges of military life is that they were serving a higher purpose. It is hard for them to identify with and affiliate with careers and communities which are not cohesively revolving around some meaningful higher purpose. No mission equals nopurpose to most service members and families. Even after only few years of service, the absence of mission and unit may be devastating to the family and the member.


We can learn quite a bit from our veteran families and communities. Just imagine what our country would be like if we all insisted on creating communities and pursuing careers which were highly cohesive and oriented around meaningful, service-oriented global missions. This is difficult in the individualistic American society in which we live. But finding a reliable group for affiliation, and a higher mission for accomplishing, in spite of American individualism, is also what would make it so rewarding. Helen Keller once said, "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” I can’t think of a more suitable explanation for the military family mentality.

Kent A. Corso is a licensed clinical health psychologist and board certified behavior analyst. He is an OEF veteran and former Air Force officer having over 15 years of research, teaching and training experience in university and medical settings. Dr. Corso is a subject matter expert for behavioral health re-design and currently holds an adjunct assistant professor position in the Department of Family Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. As president of NCR Behavioral Health, Dr. Corso leads an international training and consulting group for private and federal healthcare organizations in pursuit of integrated behavioral health programs which improve patients’ health and return the investment to the system. He is the lead author of Integrating Behavioral Health into the Medical Home: A Rapid Implementation Guide, a 2016 book from Greenbranch Publishing. 

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