- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The military, so the saying goes, enlists a soldier but re-enlists a family. Getting families to re-up in time of war, however, is a daunting task the Defense Department hopes will be made easier with research by Purdue University.

“Today, more than ever, we don’t go to war without the support of our families,” said Lt. Col. Joe Richard, a Pentagon spokesman.

Purdue’s Military Family Research Institute is receiving $8 million in federal funds to study soldiers and their families. The idea is for policy-makers to use the findings to keep soldiers from leaving.

Using incentives from better housing to financial aid to postwar counseling, Col. Richard said, officials recognize they have to keep soldiers and families happy if they are to maintain troop strength in an all-volunteer military.

When it was established in 2000, the five-year project focused on military families in peacetime. The fight against terrorism and war in Iraq changed that.

“They’re very concerned about redeployment,” said Shelley MacDermid, co-director of the institute about 65 miles northwest of Indianapolis. “How do you bring people home and turn them around to go again?”

So far, the researchers have created an index that measures commitment among soldiers and their spouses and tracks potential attrition problems. They also helped the Defense Department develop a “social compact” that links quality-of-life programs and the military’s readiness. The compact also lays out a 20-year plan to help the military compete for recruits with the civilian sector.

Now, the institute is looking at the help soldiers receive when they come home. A Purdue team traveled to Germany this year to interview soldiers from the 1st Armored Division, which lost at least 40 soldiers during the last three months of a 15-month deployment.

Deborah Olson of West Lafayette is participating in a yearlong study examining how soldiers from the Lafayette-based 209th Quartermaster Company have adjusted since returning from Iraq in April.

Mrs. Olson’s husband, Sgt. David Olson, spent a year with the close-knit Army Reserve unit, which lost a member in a roadside bombing attack.

“Even my close friends couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go through that,” said Mrs. Olson, who has two young daughters.

How the spouse views the military and the way the soldier is treated can determine whether the soldier re-enlists, Mrs. MacDermid said.

“Spouses are not just an appendage to the member,” Mrs. MacDermid said. “The spouse makes his or her own decision about whether or not the family should stay in the military.”

The institute also is assessing how military life affects children. Researchers have begun working with 1,000 families to find ways to ease the transition for children who move frequently.

The research is part of a larger project on how moving — a mainstay of military life — affects families. The Defense Department expects to issue a report to military leaders and school districts after reviewing the data.

Mrs. MacDermid said the scope of the institute’s work can be overwhelming.

“How do you try to address the needs of 3 million members and their families, 24/7, all over the planet?” she said. “It makes you just want to cover your head sometimes.”

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