I want to know why news reports over the last decade have indicated a steady decline in the well-being and satisfaction of military service members. I don't want the same pat answer, that military families need a better quality of life. Let's dig deeper. Is there a real solution to continuing dissatisfaction?
The recently-released results of two surveys point to an interesting theory worth pursuing.
We already know that a decade after 9/11, the public was war-weary, tired of all the bad news and growing deficit. The 2011 budget cuts known as "Sequestration" arguably stemmed from a widening military-civilian divide. The drawdown took an obvious toll on morale. With alarming military suicide rates, retention and recruitment problems, and other complaints, the Pentagon passed new programs in recent years to address military spouse unemployment; restricted access to adequate childcare, housing and education; unnecessary relocations; multiple deployments; etc.
Despite these efforts, recent surveys show that morale and well-being figures are still low.
The number one key finding of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America 2019 Survey was that 43 percent of IAVA members polled in 2018 report having suicidal ideations since joining the military, a six percent rise from 2017. An increasing number of these suicides are young service persons who have not been deployed or in combat.
And the 2018 Blue Star Families Military Lifestyle Survey results, released last week, identified the lack of "community connectedness and a sense of belonging" as key factors negatively affecting military families. Forty-eight percent of respondents reported not feeling a sense of belonging to their civilian community, and 43 percent felt the same about their military community. This finding was critical because "a lower sense of belonging to a community has been linked with both depression and suicide."
Blue Star Families also found low scores on military families' ability to find meaning in adversity. "[M]eaning-making is the 'lynchpin in a family's resilience response'" as it enables "more effective responses to stress." Although the majority of military families thrive when challenged, their resiliency hinges on whether or not they see a meaningful purpose to their struggles.
Interestingly, both survey groups felt that the public simply doesn't care. Sixty-seven percent of IAVA members responded that the American public didn't understand their sacrifices. And only 18 percent of Blue Star military family's surveyed thought the public comprehended their challenges. Furthermore, 60 percent of veteran families said the "public does not understand that veterans bring value to their communities."
One would think that the Pentagon's recent measures to reduce hardships and increase benefits would have a positive impact military service satisfaction, yet these survey results don't lie. Military families aren't finding meaning in service anymore and mental illnesses and suicides are on the rise. Could the military's sense of being undervalued and disconnected be a root cause?
In a February 5, 2019 article, Marine veteran Jeff Groom postulates that military members' spirits are broken "[n]ot because of what they have experienced, but because of what they haven't experienced. … [A] life deficient in community, solidarity, and shared suffering is, well, depressing."
"Congress and military leadership have gone all in on the bankrupt idea that comfort and happiness equals morale and morale correlates to readiness. In fact, they got it backward. Providing the resources and time to effectively accomplish the mission is what lifts the spirits of the troops," Groom says, and other experts agree.
"There are secondary benefits that derive from high readiness. Troops that train extensively and have all the equipment they need will have higher morale and confidence," says Mark Cancian of the Center of Strategic and International Studies.
However, reports of a "military readiness crisis" abound. The conflict between defense budget caps and an unsustainably high operational tempo has resulted in overworked crews, inadequate training, shortage of equipment, and an uptick in military air and sea accidents between 2011 and 2018.
The solution is clear. The Pentagon must prioritize the readiness crisis to give service members a sense of purpose and belonging. As Groom put it, "By keeping the military comfortable, in an ironic way, our society removes their sacrifice from the altar."
Editor's Note: All "The Meat and Potatoes of Life" content is copyrighted and is posted on Fort Knox News with the express written permission of Lisa Smith Molinari. As well, the content contains the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the official views of leaders at Fort Knox, the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.