In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote, “If there must be trouble let it be in my day, that my child might have peace.”
What parent does not wish a better life for his child? Ensuring freedom for the next generation brings hope and fulfillment to the present generation. Ironically, nations even wage war that the next generation might inherit peace. But what cost to the child does war exact?
To ensure peace for its children, the U.S. maintains the most sophisticated, technologically advanced, fighting force ever assembled on the planet. We are not reluctant to buy a secure future for our children.
About 54 percent of the federal budget is allocated to military and defense spending. In 2017, U.S. defense spending accounted for 35 percent of worldwide military spending. Also in 2017, 195,000 active duty troops, or about 15 percent of active duty personnel, were deployed in 177 countries.
Between 2001 and 2017, 2 million American children and adolescents experienced separation from a parent due to deployment, while 900,000 faced multiple deployments of a parent. Most deployments average a year or so in length. Research indicates that deployment of a parent that separates the child from the parent puts the child at risk for adjustment difficulties. About a third demonstrate adjustment difficulties.
A review article by physicians Trenton James, M.D., and Jaqueline Countryman, M.D., in 2012 documents some specific problems demonstrated by these children: depressed mood, anxiety, sleep disturbances, non-compliance and even physical aggression. Problem severity increases with longer deployments.
Children and adolescents with pre-existing adjustment difficulties fare worse. By gender, boys experience more acute difficulties with parent deployment while girls seem to demonstrate greater stress with reintegration of the deployed parent back into the home. Adolescents may present with less severe difficulties as many find solace and support in peer relationships. With his or her partner deployed, the remaining parent often experiences greater stress due to parenting alone. In these circumstances both child neglect and abuse by the attending parent escalate by about 40 percent.
The grim reaper is hard at work in time of armed conflict. Between 2001 and 2012, 15,851 active military members perished. Deployment ending in death of a parent leaves the child or adolescent even more at risk. Research on fatherless children by Edward Kruk, Ph.D., at University of British Columbia identifies some outcomes: school truancy, adolescent crime, dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, a variety of health problems, mental health disorders, future divorce and shortened life span by four years.
While military deployment and death of a parent are associated with negative developmental outcomes in children, these factors alone do not necessarily cause the maladies cited above. Each child experiences a unique social environment and history, and a unique genetic makeup that influences development.
The relationship between nurture and nature is dynamic and impossibly complex. Some children will thrive despite hardships while others will crumble in the face of minimal adversity. Nonetheless, we know that parent deployment and certainly parent death are stressors that have a negative influence on children. Some suggestions follow.
We should be discerning and avoid military conflicts in foreign countries. Our military’s role is to defend our nation, not take sides in the conflicts of others. This approach will reduce deployments and the associated problems children experience.
During periods without declared war, a distinction should be made between military personnel with children and without. Personnel without children, 57 percent, would be available for open deployment. Personnel with children would be deployed to settings that would not separate parent and child. Under no circumstances would a parent be deployed to areas with open conflict. However, during periods of declared war, there would be no distinction between military personnel with and without children.
There is precedent for family circumstances influencing status of military personnel. When a draft is called, an individual is eligible for draft deferment if an immediate family member has been killed in military service. Separating personnel with and without children recognizes the fundamental importance of our children and the clear fact that their welfare is of utmost importance.
John Seaman, Ph.D., is a retired school psychologist and a retired professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College.