Due to regional conflicts across the globe, such as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism, women are being deployed overseas in greater numbers than ever before. Women constitute approximately 16 percent of the 3.5 million members of the U.S. armed forces and 10 percent of present forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although separation of a service member from their family is always a hardship, for mothers of adolescent children, deployment comes at even more of a personal sacrifice. A recent study completed by George Mason University researcher Mona Ternus found that a woman's military deployment affects her health as well as that of her adolescent children.
"War induced separation impacts family life with unique stressors related to the dangerous aspects of deployment," says Ternus, associate professor and director of academic outreach and distance education in Mason's College of Health and Human Services and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. "These military women believe in what they do. They believe in the mission. And what they believe in terms of their commitment and their work is very high. This is very much a personal part of their lives and a personal part of their own self-development that becomes a part of them."
Ternus analyzed responses from 77 women who recently completed a military deployment and who were also mothers of adolescent children aged 10 to 18 years. Participants completed Web-based questionnaires based on their experiences at varying times after return. The majority of respondents were in the Air Force and Army, and more than 60 percent of the women had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Deployment served as a catalyst for health and behavior change of both mothers and their adolescent children—and the longer the deployment, the greater the effect. Ternus found strong correlations between the number of symptoms women experienced during deployment—such as cough, headaches, joint pain, back pain, muscle aches, numbness/tingling, skin rashes, diarrhea, chest pain and difficulty breathing—and the number of days deployed.
Making arrangements for child care was one of the most common stressors mentioned by participants. Ternus was surprised to find that, as a result of single parent households or dual-military families in which both parents deployed at the same time, 36 percent of the respondents reported having no primary parent in the home during the time of deployment.
In addition, Ternus found that a longer deployment leads to increased risk behaviors among adolescent children such as non-accidental physical injury, physical fights, incidents involving weapons, cigarette smoking/chewing tobacco, alcohol, illegal drug use, self mutilation, drop in school grades and attempted suicide. While 75 percent of the adolescents exhibited no risk factors prior to deployment according to parental responses, just as many of the children engaged in risk behaviors during and after deployment.
"There are more than 3 million immediate family members of active-duty and reserve personnel, of whom approximately 400,000 are adolescents," says Ternus. "Adolescence is a turbulent period with an increased number of risk behaviors. It follows that separation from the military mother during these potentially dangerous deployments has an impact on the adolescent."
Despite the hardships and personal sacrifice, participants expressed deep satisfaction with, and commitment to, their military work and careers. Ternus, who has been separated from her teenage daughter several times while deployed, empathizes with the women in the study.
"A theme emerged in which the military women expressed a great deal of guilt related to their absence from the home. Mothers commented on missing family events, the effect on caregivers who were supporting the family and the need to be both at work and home," says Ternus. "Many additional factors exacerbate the stresses on the family such as fear of parental death or injury. I am hopeful that my research will help to discover new ways that we can build family relationships even while people fulfill their military obligation, service and commitment to their country."
The full study is entitled, "Military Women's Perceptions of the Effect of Deployment on their Role as Mothers and on Adolescents' Health."
Ternus was awarded the Federal Nursing Services Award for this study by the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States.
This research was funded by the University of New Mexico and Ternus is continuing her program of research at George Mason University.
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