How Can Communities Support Military Families?

Carole Gnatuk
Carole Gnatuk, Ed.D.

Carole Gnatuk, Ed.D., Extension Child Development Specialist, University of Kentucky, explains the 7 distinct stages of emotional challenges faced by military families during and after deployment

A failure to successfully negotiate each stage can create havoc for the family.

The stages in this “emotional cycle of deployment” include:

  • Stage 1: Anticipation of Departure
  • Stage 2: Detachment and Withdrawal
  • Stage 3: Emotional Disorganization
  • Stage 4: Recovery and Stabilization
  • Stage 5: Anticipation of Return
  • Stage 6: Return Adjustment and Renegotiation
  • Stage 7: Reintegration and Stabilization

Wanting to help military families cope with deployment, Gnatuk and her team at developed a new program, Communities Support Military Families. While developed in Kentucky, the program is national in scope.

Here’s how Gnatuk explains the Communities Support Military Families program:

Woman Looking at Portrait of Soldier

Most of us know firsthand the power of good neighbors reaching out to each other with practical support. It’s just what friendly people do. Now, cutting edge research is showing that intentional, informal, friendly networks, undergirded by community agencies, can be highly effective in strengthening resilience and mental health in National Guard and Reserve members and their families.

Communities Support Military Families discusses the rationale, raises awareness, and provides suggestions for sensitive listening and for taking up the slack of families with absent or recently returned fathers, mothers, or spouses. This program has been effectively utilized by Extension community volunteers in Kentucky through family to family contacts doing lawn mowing, kid transportation, shopping errands, and car fixing; in public schools through family recognition evenings and bulletin boards; county fairs through family photos on t-shirts and pillow cases; and in cooperation with Operation: Military Kids, promoting summer family camps, to name just a few projects.  (Personal communication with Carole Gnatuk, April 23, 2012)

Here are suggestions from the Communities Support Military Families program on how to help support the military families in your community:

Child Feeling Left Out

  • Befriend a military family with a member who is or will soon be deployed—and then be prepared for the long haul!  Keeping up friendship throughout the seven stages of the entire deployment cycle is critical.
  • Walk a mile in their “boots”!  Try to put yourself in the family’s situ­ation. Don’t try to offer judgment or solutions to their problems. Be a good listener!
  • Be sensitive about discussing your own views on war or the mili­tary. The family may want to talk over their issues or they may only want your car­ing.
  • Send children birthday and holiday cards as well as small gifts, if appropriate.
  • Call on a regular basis, to check in and see how they are doing, to ask if they feel like going out for a walk, or want to come over for dinner.
  • Suggest the whole family or perhaps just the children join you on an outing.
  • Gift the family with tickets to a something they might not otherwise afford.
  • Cheer on the kids at sports events, musical perfor­mances, school plays etc.
  • Suggest ways that you could support the family once the service member leaves. These sug­gestions may ease the anxiety of the soon-to-be deployed family member, as well as the parent staying home.
  • Offer to assist with routine household and family tasks. You might offer to watch the children , clean the house, bring meals in on certain days, mow the lawn, rake leaves, shovel snow, or change the oil on the family’s vehicle.
  • Send a care package or letter to the deployed military member. The children in the family might like to help in this activity.
  • Offer to go on a school field trip in place of the parent, or to go along as an extra set of hands on an outing to the zoo or a vis­it to a park.
Boy at Teen Adventure Camp
Boy at Teen Adventure Camp

Adventure Camps for Military Teens

Do you know a teen from a deployed military family in your community who might be interested in—and benefit from—a high energy, high adventure, and high experience camp?

Now through March 2013, nearly 1,600 military teens (14-18 years old) will have an opportunity to participate in adventure camps at little to no cost, thanks to a partnership between the Dept. of Defense and NIFA/USDA. These high energy, high adventure, and high experience camps are being conducted by experience 4-H Youth Development and Cooperative Extension staff.

Each camp offers a unique outdoor experience that will allow a teen to build leadership, self-confidence, and teamwork skills while participating in activities like backpacking, river rafting, canoeing, wilderness survival, rocketry, rock climbing, GPS use, mountain biking, first aid, winter camping, dog sledding, ropes courses, camp cooking, archery, and other camp activities.

There are camps being scheduled and planned across the U.S. from Alaska to Maine and from Colorado to Georgia as well as states in between. Camps for youth with special needs (mental, physical, and emotional) are also planned in California, Ohio, and New Hampshire. For military youth already in the Pacific Rim, two camp dates are available in Hawaii.

You might be able to suggest one of these scheduled camps to a military family in your community and make a big difference in a young person’s ability to cope with their mom or dad’s deployment.

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