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The impact of military deployment on children

US Army's Third Infantry Divison deploys to Afghanistan for the final time

Being a military family is hard, it’s hard for the person serving (obviously) and if divorce rates are any indication, it is also hard on the spouse. While the added stress of deployment on a family cannot adequately be explained, even as someone who has seen it first hand, those stresses affect even the littlest members of the family. A new study reports that following military parents’ return from combat deployment, their children show increased visits for mental healthcare, physical injury, and child maltreatment consults, compared to children whose parents have not been deployed.

It gets worse, the same types of healthcare visits were also found to be significantly higher for children of combat-injured parents.

Children of deployed parents are known to have increased mental healthcare needs, and be at increased risk for child maltreatment during period of parental deployment. The ongoing impact of parental deployments following a parents’ return, and the impact of parental wartime injuries on children had not previously been studied.

Using healthcare data from the U.S. Military Health System, a group of researchers analyzed healthcare utilization patterns of 487,460 children aged 3-8. The team assessed the rate of post-deployment mental health, injury and child maltreatment visits of children whose parents did not deploy, those whose parents deployed and returned uninjured, and children whose parents deployed and returned injured.

Researchers found that children of previously deployed parents have substantially more mental healthcare and child maltreatment consults compared to children whose parents did had not been deployed. Furthermore, visit rates were consistently higher in children of combat-injured parents, compared to children of non-injured parents.

These findings suggest that deployment-related risk to children continues into the post-deployment period, and that risk increases when parents return from deployment injured. Increased healthcare visits in the post deployment period also indicate that parents seek care for children affected by parental deployment and injury.

Increased awareness of the impact of parental deployment and combat injury will assist health and mental healthcare providers in effectively identifying children at risk and providing needed resources where indicated.

One important thing to note, not all of these issues are because of abuse or neglect. I know that there is a stereotype of war torn husband/wife returns home only to take his/her tortured mind out on the children and/or spouse. While it is with a heavy heart I have to admit that this is the case for a rare few instances, this study is really showing that the stress of deployment — the simple fact that a family is split — can have significant impacts on a child’s wellbeing.

It is easy to think that, because a child cannot properly articulate how they are feeling, they do not feel as “big” or as much as an adult might. It is also easy to assume that being so young the child might not understand what is happening and that the absence of a family member might not register as them not coming home. The study shows that this isn’t the case, that children carry the burden of deployment too.

As a Marine vet, I know that deployments are difficult even if you aren’t married, much less have children too. You shouldn’t have to add to that difficulty with news like this; I truly wish I had different news to share. Thankfully here in the US military service is voluntary, so families can decide if the sacrifice is worth serving your country.

To be honest, I am particularly grateful that I did do it. It helped shape who I am and afford me opportunities that I might not have had otherwise. But it was just me, for families the cost of serving can be much higher, so it is unfortunate to have another study documenting just how much of a sacrifice needs to be made.

Hisle-Gorman, E., Harrington, D., Nylund, C., Tercyak, K., Anthony, B., & Gorman, G. (2015). Impact of Parents’ Wartime Military Deployment and Injury on Young Children’s Safety and Mental Health Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 54 (4), 294-301 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2014.12.017


2 responses

  1. My husband got out of the Navy when our sons became old enough to be impacted by long deployments. So important to support the entire military family. Thanks for posting!


    March 19, 2015 at 11:46 am

    • Thank you and good for your husband, it’s tough on a family no matter how small or large.


      March 21, 2015 at 3:45 pm

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