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American Forces Press Service

Military Study Expands to Include Families

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 14, 2009 – A Defense Department study that explores the long-term health effects of military service, including deployments, will expand its scope to military families starting in June.

With nearly 150,000 servicemember participants, the Millennium Cohort Study is the largest prospective health project in military history, according to the study’s Web site. The study launched in 2001 and will span 21 years by the time it concludes in 2022.

“Researchers have done a good job of studying the impact of deployment on servicemembers beginning with Vietnam, but family members have been pretty much overlooked,” William E. Schlenger, principal investigator for the study’s family impact component, said last week at the Trauma Spectrum Disorders conference here.

Researchers will remedy that in June, when the study will enroll a new panel of about 62,500 servicemembers. About half will be married, and researchers anticipate that about 65 percent will give permission to contact their spouses, Schlenger said. In the end, researchers hope to have a sample of about 5,000 spouses whose servicemember has deployed one or more times, and about 5,000 spouses whose member has not deployed, he said.

Having their feedback will go a long way toward filling important gaps in information, Schlenger said.

“The objectives of the family component are to answer important health-related questions about military servicemembers and their families in the context of deployment and other occupational exposures,” he explained, “and to assess the importance of family support and other factors on the health outcomes.”

Experts will ask spouses about their physical and mental health and also about the status of their servicemember, Schlenger said. Both will be asked about the quality of their relationship with each other and, if applicable, about how deployments are affecting their children.

“We’ll also ask the spouse about the specific kinds of stressors that have happened in the family that are attributable to deployment,” Schlenger added.

Schlenger noted two “active ingredients” of deployments that affect families and their functioning. “No. 1, the servicemember is leaving the family,” he said. “Mommy or daddy is leaving, or my spouse whom I’ve chosen to live my life with is going away -- and it’s not for a nontrivial period of time.”

And the spouse not only is going away, “but going to a place that’s very dangerous,” he continued. “That is the part that makes service in the military different from other kinds of occupations.”

Experts hope to learn more about the way children of different ages and stages understand and respond to someone leaving. “These are the kinds of active ingredients that need to be examined in some detail, and we’re hoping to do so,” he said.

Researchers project they’ll have some findings by 2012, he added.

The study’s expansion marks an important step in military family research, Schlenger said, with other studies soon to follow.

“A number of funded studies will be started soon, so there will be much more information about the effect of deployment on families in the near future,” he said.

While the family component is a step in the right direction, Schlenger said, he hopes studies like this will be expanded even more in the future.

“Virtually all of the studies that have been funded, or are soon to be funded, focused largely on married people and on the spouse and the children,” he said. About half of the military is married, he added, but the other half is “out completely.”

“But those people have families too -- mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, a whole lot of other family members who can be impacted,” he said. “We need in the next round to be able to focus on the broader impact on families.”

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