By Dr. Vivian Greentree
Director of BlueStar Families
Our military community has come to the forefront of public discussion of late. The long-term effects of 10 years of sustained combat on service members, their families, and the communities where they live is something that can’t be relegated to the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other traditional military community players. It will take a community centric approach to address wicked problems like reintegration, veteran employment and homelessness, mental health and the general wellness of our military families.
Thankfully our military community abounds with qualities like resilience, public service motivation, and social connectedness that lend themselves to maintaining a healthy, thriving society.
Many military families have the same life experiences common to many families, including balancing work and family, parenting issues such as care-giving and education concerns, and maintaining healthy relationships. They also have unique stressors relating to the requirements of the military lifestyle. We are more likely to move than our civilian peers; we have added stresses on our relationships and mental health and wellness related to repeated deployment cycles and the reintegration process when our service members come home.
Our service member’s job affects our family in a way that other employers don’t. Some have called it a “greedy institution” – meaning they can tell us where to live, when to move, how to dress, and we face uncertainties about the safety of our loved ones when they deploy.
However, there is a lot of strength that develops and flourishes in the military community. In fact, I was so interested in that strength and some of the ties between military family resiliency and civic engagement, that Blue Star Families added a special section to our its 2012 Military Family Lifestyle Survey this year.
There is plenty of research out there that suggests the more connected you are to people and the more tied in you feel to others, the healthier you are. Oour findings do indicate that military families engage in the types of social and civic behaviors that build healthy, vibrant communities.
We build strength in our connections to one another during deployments when we work together to support each other. These informal networks help us to thrive in our communities and stay engaged with each other’s past military service.
Each challenge that we face, for example during a deployment, is also an opportunity for personal growth in the ability to overcome a challenge and come out stronger on the other side. We are often more competent, more secure, and better able to face the next challenge or to support someone else facing the same situation.
So, though there are unique challenges, they are accompanied by some very valuable, if intangible benefits to being affiliated with the military lifestyle – pride in service, connection to a greater cause in life, satisfaction with the contribution to society, development of an indomitable sense of civic virtue, and this personal growth and development of inner reserves of strength; the intrinsic power that comes from overcoming challenges and growing from them.
Our survey results also point to the strong pro-social tendencies and civic assets that reside within the military community. Respondents in the survey volunteered at incredible rates; both informal and formal volunteering and voting behavior, and charitable and altruistic activities all had high levels of respondent participation. For example, eighty-nine percent of respondents were registered to vote. And, in the last presidential election, eighty-two percent of respondents said they voted. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they had volunteered in the past year. And impressively, ten percent of respondents volunteer time that is the equivalent of a part-time job. Perhaps most strikingly, even given some of the challenges already mentioned, a large majority would still recommend military service to their children, are satisfied with the military lifestyle, support the continued service of their service member, and think the all volunteer force has worked well. That is very powerful! Even given the known sacrifices, even after the deployments, the separations, and the very real wear and tear on our service families, they would still encourage their own children to sign up for military service. Think about that.
The concept of social capital would suggest that the complex, informal networks and relationships that are developed through the military family experience (e.g. building trust, reciprocity, informal volunteering, shared sacrifice, and cooperation between families) are the building blocks for a communitarian approach to democracy that values service and sees it as an important way to contribute to the public good. Really, as a vital source of strength for any community. This is why emphasis on service and volunteerism is such an effective, vivid bridge between the military and civilian populations with regard to the experiences of modern day military families. Military families know they must rely on one another in order to benefit the whole of their community and have learned that service to others can, in fact, be a healing gesture for themselves.
Trust, hope, a sense of integrity, accomplishment, versatility. Tolerance, compassion, and generosity. Yes we have challenges, but when we overcome them, it is incredibly powerful. We derive strength from them and we grow from them. Ultimately, it is what makes for the amazing, strong, competent, thoughtful, resourceful, engaging people who make up our military community. Maybe we are the lucky ones and maybe that is exactly why we would recommend this amazing lifestyle to our children.
So, if there is one thing I could pass on to my civilian friends, a strength from our community, which has been forged through 10 years of war, it would be to appreciate each other. Revel in your relationships and in your communities. Ask how you can help others and realize that you are only as strong as your weakest link. Talk unabashedly about what the words honor, courage, commitment, and the public interest mean. We all need think of each other as battle buddies, in sickness and in health, because we are stronger when we work together and when we cherish our connections to each other. That is the best way to honor service. With service. With compassion. With being generous with yourself, of your talents, your resources, and your heart.
Vivian Greentree, Ph.D., is Blue Star Families’ Director of Research and Policy and a co-founder of the organization. A Navy veteran and military spouse, Vivian’s areas of public policy research include civic engagement, public service motivation, and military family community policy. She was recently named a Daily Point of Light by the Points of Light Institute for her volunteer work. The Greentree’s are the proud parents of two future Naval aviators, ages 5 and 8.
Photo Credit: ksfamilylaw.com, bluestarfamilies, 2012serviceimpact.challenge.gov