Month of the Military Child: Transitioning to Civilian Life as a Military Child - Bob Woodruff Foundation

Month of the Military Child: Transitioning to Civilian Life as a Military Child

As of November 1, 2020, National Veterans Intermediary (NVI) is called the Local Partner Network. Older content may reference our original name.

April is the Month of the Military Child. We know that when their parents transition out of uniform, military children become the children of veteran families whose new lives on the civilian landscape present new and unique adjustments . Increasingly, the collaboratives in our local partner network strive to serve veteran families as a whole. Part one of this series can help put you in the shoes of a military child transitioning out of the military with her family as a teen (full disclosure: it’s yours truly). Part two shares resources you can add to your toolkit when you’re serving veteran families.

Part of designing a great user experience is perspective-taking; the designer (that’s you, in this case) takes the time to understand the experience of the “end user”: who they are, what they’ve experienced, why they’re engaging with the system you’re designing, and what their experience feels like while they’re doing so. Through interviews, research, and case studies, designers sometimes develop “personas” and make sure the user experience fits the needs of each. In the veteran space, these personas should be diverse and represent veterans, caregivers, survivors, and families—including military children.

I was 14 years old when my dad retired from the military. My little brother and I were born-and-raised Air Force brats, and my mom had been with my dad on his military journey for almost 16 years.

As retirement approached, my dad called a family meeting and asked where we wanted to go. We’d sacrificed any real choice in the matter for the last several years, so now it was our turn to choose. We could go anywhere, he said: Hawaii, sunny California. Unanimously, we chose Maine. That was where Gram lived, along with most of our aunts and uncles. It was where we had warm summer memories of rocky beaches and cozy winter memories of visiting family.

During the last three years of my dad’s service, we had moved once per year. I’d gone to two high schools; my brother had attended three middle schools. And it hadn’t been the least bit weird. It was our normal. The big retirement move to Maine was a transition, but in a lot of ways it felt like any other PCS.

The greatest novelty was the permanence of it all. My (very patient) mom let me paint my bedroom any color that I wanted (though I’m sure she regretted it when I asked her if we could color-match a charming—or unfortunate, depending on your taste—chartreuse from the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone dustcover). We settled in, assessed the lay of the land, joined extracurriculars, and started making friends quickly the way you do when starting over is just another life process.

Honestly, I didn’t think too hard about the last move until we’d been in Maine for nearly three years. That’s when I got itchy; three years was the longest I’d lived anywhere in my life. Despite being shy, I’d become great at making friends, but had no practice keeping friends when the going got tough. Lucky for me, I had very kind, no-drama friends. Also lucky for me: The itch showed up exactly when it was time to head off to college (and begin training for my own military career). When preparing to select colleges, my guidance counselor reviewed my transcripts with eyebrows raised, and remarked that I was “very well-adjusted,” considering the regular uprooting. That moment, three years after my dad retired, was the first time I really considered that my family’s normal just…wasn’t.

It’s important to note that my family had a pretty best-case-scenario transition. My dad’s military career connected clearly with his “retirement” career. My mom’s career was in-demand nationwide. They’d prepared to buy a house, and found a Chip-and-Jo caliber “fixer upper” in an amazing school district. We moved from the supports of the military structure to the supports of an extended family structure. Retirement meant my family had a consistent income stream during the transition (a resource that doesn’t extend to those who separate). But it’s still stressful.

Even a textbook transition can net a family eight or more of the major stressors on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, which correlates elevated scores with an increased risk of stress-related illness. Now imagine a transition with more uncertainty around career, housing, support systems, or finances. Things get tougher when one or more of those factors are out of place. Further challenges can arise when families are healing from service-connected injuries (visible or invisible).

Military families serve together, and they transition together. The change and stress and goodbyes and clever ways to answer “where are you from?” all become normal. But transition can precipitate drastic change in what’s “normal” for military families. While there are resources for veterans and for military families, there are far fewer dedicated resources for veteran families. Luckily, a growing number of organizations, and even many of our local partner collaboratives, are including support veteran families in their missions. As one collaborative leader put it, “we don’t differentiate between helping a veteran and helping their family.” The resources in the next blog will offer insight and tools for collaboratives seeking to support veteran families.