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12 Apr 2024

Military family readiness: An overview

You may have seen in a REACH publication, the news, or other forms of media the importance of military family readiness – but have you ever wondered what the phrase really means? In this article, we'll follow the fictional Stanley family as they navigate military life. Through these events we will explain what military family readiness is, how it influences family functioning, and what resources the military has created to promote military family readiness.

What is military family readiness?

The term readiness is commonly referred to throughout military culture in reference to Service members. The Department of Defense (DoD) defines readiness as "the ability of military forces to fight and meet the demands of assigned missions" (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2017, p. 195).

Blake Stanley is a 30-year-old active-duty Soldier preparing for deployment in one month – for Blake, readiness means that they are physically and mentally fit and ready to adapt during deployment. For their partner Sam and 4-year-old child Alex, though, readiness is much broader.

Military family readiness differs from Service member readiness in that it is "the state of being prepared within the unique context of military service, to effectively navigate the challenges of daily living and military transitions" (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, 2021, p. 54). Assessing military family readiness is not a matter of determining whether a family is "ready or not," but rather a matter of describing the family's capacity to handle the challenges they encounter. Therefore, military families need to have adequate means to overcome both military (e.g., relocation, deployment) and normative (e.g., parenting stress) stressors.

Although Blake is physically and mentally prepared for deployment, they must navigate this upcoming transition with Sam and Alex as well. Currently, Blake and Sam share childcare tasks like daycare drop-offs and meal planning, as well as alternating planning date nights every week. When Blake is deployed for the next six months, Sam must now do all daycare drop-offs as well as grocery pick-ups and meal preparation. Because of the time difference, Blake will only be able to video call once a week at 10:00am, right in the middle of the workday. To adjust successfully as a family during deployment, Blake, Sam, and Alex will have to establish a new sense of "normal."

Family scientists frequently gauge "readiness" by evaluating functioning across individual family members, family relationships, and life domains (Hawkins et al., 2018; see Figure 1). By capturing insight into these various aspects of family functioning, we can gain a holistic understanding of families' readiness to respond to stress and change. When determining what comprises family readiness, it is important to view the family as a group of interdependent members who are constantly influenced by each other. Thus, when one member of the family system or one area of the system is not at optimal functioning, the rest of the system may not function at its best.

The stress of the upcoming deployment has led Blake to feel anxious, along with the rest of their family. Sam is worried about how to handle caring for Alex alone for the next 6 months. Alex has picked up on both of their parents' moods and has started crying more frequently due to the stress. To help ease everyone's stress, Sam plans a family picnic for the three of them to discuss communication expectations while Blake is gone and strategize how Alex can keep in touch with them. This comes as a relief to the family, as there is one less concern to worry about.

Why does military family readiness matter?

Military family readiness is a primary objective for the Department of Defense, as maintaining ready families ensures maintaining a ready defense force (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, 2012). Spillover is a commonly cited concern for military family readiness; that is, issues at home may influence Service members' performance at work, while in other cases, issues at work may negatively affect family functioning (Escarda et al., 2022). For example, when couples encounter communication difficulties or marital conflict during deployment, the Service member may be distracted by their relationship issues and therefore less able to complete their military-related duties (Cater et al., 2015).

Blake and Sam agree to prioritize video calls, and Sam coordinated with their boss to allow them to block one hour of their schedule as long as they can stay after an extra hour. They both look forward to the call every day, and it is a relief to have a scheduled and predictable time together to meet. Knowing when they can expect a call helps Blake focus on their deployment-related duties during the week.

To ensure that Service members' capacity to perform their duties is not impeded by family-related issues, it is necessary for the Department of Defense to place an emphasis on military family readiness (Lester et al., 2011). Not only is family readiness important for ensuring that Service members are ready to perform their military duties, but it is also critical for the retention of Service members in the military. The decision made by many Service members to enter the military or to remain in the military is often determined by financial, social, and relational functioning. For instance, when families encounter work-family conflict due to family life stressors, like having multiple children or worrying about finances, they tend to report less satisfaction with military life and are therefore more likely to separate from the military (Woodall et al., 2023).

After two weeks of longer workdays and having to ask the neighbor to pick up Alex from daycare, Sam starts to feel overwhelmed and asks Blake if they can reduce the number of 10am calls. Blake can't stop thinking about Sam's stress and starts to feel guilty about being gone for so long. This is their third deployment, and this happens every time. For the sake of their family, Blake wonders if it's just easier to leave the military.

Indicators of Family Readiness
Figure 1. Indicators of Family Readiness (Hawkins et al., 2018, p. ES-3)

Promoting readiness through the Military Family Readiness System

Family functioning and readiness is further supported through the Military Family Readiness System. The Department of Defense created the Military Family Readiness System to serve as a network of programs and services which promote military family well-being, readiness, resilience, and quality of life.

Since the 10:00am call has been causing some tension, Sam and Blake decide to download the Love Every Day app to communicate and connect throughout the day. Sam decides to join their installation's Family Readiness Group to connect with other spouses and parents that have experienced the stress of deployment. When Blake is preparing to return home, the couple watches a webinar on family reunions to spark conversation about how to manage expectations. Although the deployment process was stressful for each family member, utilizing these resources helped the Stanley family cope with military and normative stressors, as well as help Blake feel confident with continuing their military career.

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