“It’s time we saw uniformed counsellors on military bases” – an anonymous military wife

2 days to go

Saturday 30th June 2012


By an anonymous military wife.

This Saturday will see the 4th Armed Forces Day – a welcome opportunity to raise awareness of and celebrate the contribution of those who have served in our armed forces. I’m particularly looking forward to our own local festivities, where for the very first time as a military wife, I’ll be donning an outfit simultaneously suited to both respectable small talk with the commanding officer, and to riding a bucking bronco/engaging in inflatable sumo wrestling/whatever other revelries are in store for the unsuspecting service families in my community.

I’m grateful to be a part of these celebrations – the opportunities for me to get together with other forces families are, unfortunately, few and far between. And I do think it is important that Armed Forces Day continues to be an opportunity to recognise not only the contribution of our service personnel but also the contribution of forces families to the functionality of our armed forces too. After all, soldiers – the public face of the military – are just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Beneath the surface, many are supported by families who adapt to deployments, repostings, separation, injury and who keep service personnel and their family lives afloat during some difficult and testing times.

A recent report, published by the British Legion and Combat Stress has found that whilst a great deal of work has gone into promoting the emotional wellbeing of service personnel less focus has been given to the stresses and strains that impact upon service families. Whilst medical personnel and welfare services can refer service personnel to various therapeutic services, I have found very little information about where families can turn to for specialist support.

Yet, if you scratch below the surface in any military community, the emotional stress that many service families face is evident. Only last week, a conversation with a young boy at the local school where I volunteer hit home to me just how tough life in a military family can be – especially for children.

Ben is ten years old and has so far lived on 3 different military bases. After the summer, he is moving to his 4th base and during a chat about a story he was writing he described his dilemma in devising a new strategy for coping with the forthcoming move. Would it be better to keep himself to himself at his new school and ultimately risk being lonely? Or throw himself in and make lots of friends, knowing how sad it would make him feel to leave them behind next time he has to move?

These problems are not restricted to just military kids. At a recent wedding, a friend who is a military padre explained that, rather than providing for the spiritual needs of families in her jurisdiction, the bread and butter of her day job is providing emotional support to the partners of service personnel, who are struggling to cope with one aspect of military life or another: isolation, relationship breakdown, anxiety and separation, to name but a few. One study in the US, for example, has found that the deployment of partners is associated with significantly more mental health diagnoses amongst military wives , including incidents of depression, sleep disorder, anxiety, acute stress and adjustment disorder.

Finding tea and sympathy at the local vicarage seems to be one option for military wives, whilst others who are struggling may seek out their NHS doctor and ask for a referral to specialist counselling or therapeutic services. But I’m not convinced this support is specialist enough. The military covenant recognises the unique challenges of military service, pledging to sustain military families through these particular challenges. Rather than seeking comfort and support outside of the military system, perhaps it is time we saw uniformed counsellors on each base – trained in the particular and unique needs of service families, and open and accessible to all, service personnel and their families alike. After all, the British Legion’s report confirmed that the psychological impact of military life on service families is under-researched and little understood. The subsequent impact of unhappy or dysfunctional families on the effectiveness of service personnel and the military machine itself can therefore barely be imagined.

Despite the last 7 paragraphs, I want to stress that being in a military family is not all doom and gloom. After all, this weekend, I believe there’ll be a hog roast, cider and a massive dance mat to play on!

But amid the revelry, Armed Forces Day is an opportune reminder that the military covenant must do more than just recognise the particular needs of service families. It must also consider what specialist steps need to be taken, to make sure those particular needs are met.


One thought on ““It’s time we saw uniformed counsellors on military bases” – an anonymous military wife

  1. I could not agree more with the author of this article about the vital role played by military families and the unique challenges that they face. Significantly more must be done to protect and enhance the emotional well-being of Service families and there is certainly a need for specialist support. However, I am not convinced that ‘uniformed counsellors’ would meet that need. Historically, Service families have been reluctant to seek support from welfare agencies that have direct links to the military because of fears that the Serving person’s chain of command would learn about their difficulties and that this might adversely impact upon their career. In my view, it would be more helpful for independent, confidential counselling services to be provided.

    In addition, as I discussed in my book ‘Relocation, Gender and Emotion: A Psycho-Social Perspective on the Experiences of Military Wives’ there are several other policy changes that could be made which would improve the lot of military families, e.g.: an overt recognition of the demanding nature of military life would encourage Service families to talk about their difficulties and to become mutually supportive, rather than collude in perpetuating a culture of stoicism within which common problems are largely denied and individuals are expected to ‘just get on with it’ unsupported; the military must reduce its out-dated, gendered expectations of spouses (i.e. stop treating wives as unpaid support systems) and recognise them as people in their own right, whose personal ambitions and needs deserve to be addressed; greater residential stability should be introduced; there should be more notice of – and choice about the timing of – unavoidable moves; employment assistance programmes should be developed to assist trailing spouses who wish to maintain their own careers; langauge lessons should be provided for families posted to non-English speaking countries overseas, etc, etc.

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