Loneliness, Unemployment Among Top Concerns for Military Spouses, Survey Finds

U.S. Marines assigned to 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Battalion, and their spouses, participate in Jane Wayne Day at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., May 20, 2015. Jane Wayne Day is an event for military spouses to learn and interact with military gear and training activities. (Anthony Brosilow/Marine Corps)
U.S. Marines assigned to 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Battalion, and their spouses, participate in Jane Wayne Day at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., May 20, 2015. Jane Wayne Day is an event for military spouses to learn and interact with military gear and training activities. (Anthony Brosilow/Marine Corps)

The majority of spouses of active-duty troops, reserve and National Guard members are satisfied with military life, comfortable with their finances and support their husbands or wives staying in military service.

Yet many spouses also face challenges such as high unemployment rates, loneliness and stress -- concerns that Defense Department officials say must be addressed to ensure that service members can focus on their jobs.

These are among the findings of the 2017 Defense Department Surveys of Active Duty and Reserve Component Spouses, released Thursday by DoD. While overall satisfaction rates with military life have declined slightly since previous surveys were conducted in 2012 and 2016, the overall rate -- with 60 percent of spouses expressing support for the "military way of life" -- remains consistent over the past five years.

The overall happiness of spouses is considered a readiness issue for the Pentagon, as personnel who have supportive families tend to remain in the services. With many troops married -- nearly 55 percent of active duty men, 45 percent of active duty women, 46 percent of reserve component men and 35 percent of women -- DoD officials say programs that help military families "have a positive impact on readiness, retention and resiliency."

"In order to sustain our current operations and prepare for future conflict, the U.S. military must continually recruit, train and retain high quality personnel ... Surveys indicated spouse support to stay in the military is linked to service member retention two years later," said Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness James Stewart during a Pentagon briefing.

DoD conducts the surveys of active duty and reserve spouses at least every two years. The surveys are conducted using scientific methods and the results are used to identify problems, gaps in service and areas where new programs may be needed to support families.

The survey results released Thursday were drawn from completed responses of 9,813 active duty spouses and roughly 9,000 reserve component spouses, including the National Guard.

Among the biggest concerns for active-duty spouses was stress: More than half said they experienced more stress than usual and reported feeling nervous, anxious or on edge in the past two weeks. More than a third expressed feelings of sadness, depression or hopelessness.

Yet they also reported having strong, resilient families, with 89 percent saying they would describe their families as happy and 84 percent saying their family members easily share love and affection.

Among reserve spouses, slightly more than a third expressed having more personal stress than usual, with nearly half saying the amount of stress is about the same as usual. More than 83 percent said they were satisfied with their marriage, and 68 percent reported that they felt financially comfortable.

The spousal unemployment rate, at 24 percent among those actively looking for a job, continues to be a problem for military spouses across the board. Army spouses reported the highest unemployment rates, at 28 percent, with the Marine Corps rates at 25 percent, the Navy at 21 percent, and Air Force at 19 percent.

Barriers to employment, according to the spouses, include permanent change of station moves, needing licenses or credentials in a new state and child care.

Among reserve component spouses, the unemployment rate was 8 percent.

Nationally, the unemployment rate for working-age married women is 2.4 percent and for men, it's 2.1 percent.

Another issue raised by the survey was the mental health and wellbeing of spouses of junior enlisted personnel. More than 47 percent of spouses married to the E-1 through E-4 ranks expressed loneliness during deployment and expressed higher-than-average levels of distress.

"Almost half of the spouses of E-1-E4 service members reported loneliness as a common problem. And although 39 percent of spouses said they used other spouses as a source of support, 38 percent said they are unlikely to reach out to another military spouse because they either don't know another spouse or they lack opportunity to connect with other spouses," said A.T. Johnston, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy.

"Helping our newest service members learn how to connect is one of the best things we can do to help with resiliency."

Survey results indicate on the whole that military children are faring well, although children of reserve members had more issues dealing with the deployment of a parent, according to survey results.

Among the 77 percent of active-duty spouses with a child during the most recent deployment of their military member, 64 percent said their child stayed well-connected during the deployment, 56 percent said their child coped well and 65 percent said they easily reconnected with the parent after deployment.

In the reserve component, 49 percent of children expressed problem behaviors during deployment, 63 percent experienced fear or anxiety and 44 percent expressed distress over discussions of war.

Child care continues to be a concern for service members, but Defense Department officials who spoke Thursday said the issues that face military parents are similar to those in the civilian communities: concerns over affordability and availability.

"This is an issue that requires more attention ... it's important to note that the availability of child care is a national issue. Problems in our military families can be exacerbated by the fact that availability [challenges] are a nationwide situation that really impact our department's ability to use community resources to find solutions to the problem," said Carolyn Stevens, director of the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy.

DoD officials said they will rely on the results to develop support and service programs, and also share them with federal, state, nonprofit and private groups to tailor programs to the military community.

And while they continue to analyze the findings of the 2017 survey, they also are gearing up for the next one -- invitations for the 2019 reserve spouse survey were issued in January and the active duty spouse survey invitations will go out in May, Stewart said.

"It's important that spouses invited to take part in the survey share their voices so we can continue to make policies and develop programs that reflect the real time needs and concerns of our military families," Stewart said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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