- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009


Although the separation of a military service member from family is always a hardship, a mother’s deployment can come at even more of a personal sacrifice with a recent study by George Mason University researcher Mona Ternus.

Women are being deployed overseas in greater numbers than ever before, making up about 16 percent of the 3.5 million members of the U.S. armed forces overall and 10 percent of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“War-induced separation impacts family life with unique stressors related to the dangerous aspects of deployment,” says Ms. Ternus, associate professor and director of academic outreach and distance education in George Mason’s College of Health and Human Services and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. “Additionally, factors such as new living arrangements for the children and fear of parental death or injury exacerbate these stresses.”

Ms. Ternus found that a woman’s military deployment affects her health as well as that of her adolescent children by analyzing responses from 77 women who recently completed military deployment and who were mothers of children ages 10 to 18.

Participants completed Web-based questionnaires based on their experiences at varying times after their return. The majority were in the Air Force and Army, and more than 60 percent of the women had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Results showed that the longer the deployment, the greater the effect on health and behavior change. There were strong correlations between the number of symptoms that women experienced during deployment - such as coughing, headaches, joint pain, back pain, muscle aches, numbness/tingling, skin rashes, diarrhea, chest pain and difficulty breathing - and the number of days deployed.

Back home, making arrangements for child care was one of the most common stressors. Ms. Ternus said she was surprised to find that because 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.

In addition, she 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 - fights, incidents involving weapons, tobacco use, drinking alcohol, illegal drug use, self-mutilation and attempted suicide - were seen on a smaller scale. Military women could often mitigate these risks upon return, but the drop in school grades persisted over time.

According to parental responses, a quarter of the adolescent children exhibited risk factors prior to deployment, a figure that jumped to 75 percent during and after deployment.

“There are more than 3 million immediate family members of active-duty and reserve personnel, of whom approximately 400,000 are adolescents,” says Ms. 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.”

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

Ms. 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,” Ms. Ternus said. “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.”

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

c Marjorie Musick is a manager in the Office of Media and Public Relations at George Mason University.

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