Study Finds that Mothers’ Military Deployment Affects Health of Women and Teens

Posted: May 4, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Mona Ternus in training session
Mason researcher Mona Ternus during a military medical exchange program and exercise with Tunisian military medical personnel. At the time, Ternus, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, was serving as education director for American personnel training the Tunisians.
Photo courtesy of Mona Ternus

By Marjorie Musick

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 Mason researcher Mona Ternus found that a woman’s military deployment affects her health as well as that of her adolescent children.

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.

Mona Ternus in uniform
Mona Ternus in uniform. She is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
Photo courtesy of Mona Ternus

“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.

“Additional factors — such as new living arrangements for the children and fear of parental death or injury — exacerbate these stresses.”

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.

Longer Deployment Has Greater Effect

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.

Mona Ternus with daughter
Ternus with daughter Kattey Mayrose, 11.
Photo courtesy of Mona Ternus

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.

“As a single mother of three it is difficult for me to find the time to care for myself, and the way personnel are handled in the military arena has caused me to seek care in the civilian sector for fear of being ostracized or jeopardizing my military career,” comments one woman who participated in the study.

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.

“My husband and I are both active-duty soldiers; I am a nurse and he is a chaplain. As we were deployed at the same time, it was extremely difficult on both children, as both parents went to war,” remarks a participant.

“The most significant event was with my 16-year-old, crying uncontrolled on the phone, depressed. [It was a] truly helpless feeling being that far away and not being able to do anything to help.”

Ternus notes that 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.

“They have grown up with both parents in the military. We were both deployed for Operation Desert Storm when the oldest two were babies. Occasionally, they refer to it and make me feel guilty about things I missed. My oldest daughter does this the most. [They] occasionally make comparisons to other moms. Of course, I am very different,” says a woman in the study.

In addition, Ternus found that a longer deployment leads to increased risk behaviors among adolescent children, primarily with a drop in school grades, poor nutrition and decreased exercise.

Other risk factors such as non-accidental physical injury, physical fights, incidents involving weapons, tobacco use, drinking alcohol, illegal drug use, self mutilation and attempted suicide were exhibited in small percentages. Military women could often impact and mitigate these risks upon return, but the drop in school grades persisted over time.

“There are more than three 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.”

While 25 percent of the adolescents exhibited risk factors prior to deployment, according to parental responses, Ternus found that figure jumped to 75 percent during and after deployment.

“He [my son] has discussed the words ‘suicide’ and ‘killing myself’ on three separate occasions. He seems to detach himself from our ‘family-time.’ He berates his younger brothers constantly,” comments a participant.

Women Committed to Their Military Careers

Despite the hardships and personal sacrifice, participants expressed deep satisfaction with, and commitment to, their military work and careers.

“I understand my children’s fear of their mother dying. Chances are their peers cannot relate to this, as most children don’t have parents whose main job is military during a time of war. However, I did validate my daughter’s feelings and let her know that it must be very scary, but that I made the choice that I did because it was the best decision for me, and the best for them, and for the preservation of women around the world. I was fighting for the freedom of all people, especially girls of dictators whose lives are still not considered as valuable as a man’s. Of course — and most of all — to protect the freedom of this country — to ensure their freedoms are protected. At the very least, I told her, ‘Who else’s mom could say they’d die for their kids and mean it?’” says a participant.

Ternus, who has been separated from her teenage daughter several times while deployed, empathizes with the women in the study.

“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,” says Ternus.

“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.”

Ternus’ study, “Military Women’s Perceptions of the Effect of Deployment on their Role as Mothers and on Adolescents’ Health,” was awarded the Federal Nursing Services Award by the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States. This research was funded by the University of New Mexico; Ternus is continuing her program of research at Mason.

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