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Perpetual war hits military families hard

THE BUSH administration has recently ordered thousands of American soldiers whose tour in Iraq was supposed to be ending to stay for an extended time. Soldiers and their families have always sacrificed in times of war. But World Wars I and II and Korea had a clear beginning and an end, and in those conflicts, as well as in Vietnam, our country had millions of draftees we could send to fight.

Now we have a smaller, professional, all volunteer military which, our leaders tell us, must confront some level of war for the foreseeable future. If we are going to be a nation perpetually at war, and if we are to maintain an all volunteer military and avoid the draft, we will need to do a better job of addressing the special problems that extended combat duty causes for soldiers and their families back home.

Half of the spouses of US Army soldiers who have had their deployments extended say that they would be less likely to want their spouse to reenlist if they knew there was going to be another big deployment within the next two years, according to a recent survey we conducted with The Washington Post. Two-thirds of these spouses believe that the Army is headed for a major problem with retaining personnel.

The survey showed that military families are overwhelmingly proud of their service. However, one in four spouses of soldiers who have had their deployments extended report that coping with deployment has been a major problem for them. Among military families with children, 37 percent report that extended deployment has posed a major problem for their children. Half of the spouses of deployment-extended soldiers rate the overall support they have gotten from the Army during deployment as only fair or poor.

The financial stress of extended deployment can be severe for military families. Fully three in 10 report that in the past year, they and their family have had trouble paying bills. For more than one in five, their current financial situation is such that they have to get food stamps or Women, Infants, and Children program aid from the government. (Even 6 percent of families of officers say they receive food stamps or WIC.) Clearly more financial support is needed for the families of soldiers risking their lives for their country for an extended period of time.

The emotional toll that soldiers and their families pay when they are overseas for extended periods can also be high. Fifty-six percent of spouses of extended-duty soldiers are living day-to-day with the fear that their husband or wife will be injured or killed overseas. When asked about the families in their spouse's unit, half report that marital problems are very common; 40 percent cite depression as a very common problem; 27 percent report alcohol or drug abuse problems in the unit; and 16 percent say domestic violence is very common. The military may have to provide much greater support for people living with these issues for long periods of time if it hopes to avoid a possible reenlistment crisis.

In addition, half of the spouses of soldiers on extended deployment report having had difficulty sending or receiving communications with their husband or wife. In an era of instant telecommunications, we should not have a situation where soldiers and their families cannot have the kind of regular contact that can help to minimize the fear and stress they must live with every day.

We have to recognize that maintaining an all-volunteer Army is expensive, especially if it is to be continually at war. Unless we are willing as a nation to return to a military draft, we need to do more to support families of soldiers on extended deployment fighting in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Drew E. Altman is president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation. Robert J. Blendon is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. 

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