Military families are younger than their civilian counterparts, getting married and having their families at earlier ages. Why does this happen, and what does it mean when working with a military family?
In the past, our military forces were overwhelmingly single, young males. Military policies both overtly and culturally discouraged marriage, especially in the lower enlisted ranks. A common saying was “Son, if the Army (Navy, Marines, and Air Force) wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.” With the switch to a full-time professional force the emphasis has drastically changed. Today family members of active duty (full-time) military personnel out- number military members by a ratio of 1.4 to 1; 55% of military members are married and 43% have children.
The military recruits young healthy individuals, so the majority of service members are young. This has always been true, but in today’s “all-volunteer” military, a significant number of the youngest enlisted (lower ranks) personnel are married with children. While the actual numerical count is not vast (less than 1% of the country’s population are active duty military) it reflects a change in military policy. In general, the Department of Defense has responded to the change in demographics by “re-institutionalizing”  marriage: whether by intent or result, regulations, pay allowances and programs support service members’ marital status.
Policies and circumstances have combined to create a climate that allow our youngest active duty military members to marry (and for some to begin their families). One of the biggest incentives for marriage is the fact that the military recognizes only one type of personal relationship: marriage to another individual. “Significant others” don’t qualify for services and benefits extended to spouses. For the military member, housing and other allowances that enable them to share space with their loved one are only available when they marry that loved one. A further incentive has operated since the beginning of time: the desire of someone heading to a war zone to have a legal, formal relationship to protect their loved one.
The result? Of active duty service members, 33% of younger members in the lower pay grades are married. 52% of active duty spouses are under age 30, with over half of those under age 25. 51% of active duty service members are age 25 or under at the time their first child is born. 42% of children of all active duty service members are age 5 and under, and over half that number are age 2 and under.
How well do these young families fare?
Young military parents sometimes have challenges adjusting to the expectations of military life. On the other hand, this can be a maturing experience for young families; individuals tend to “grow up” rapidly to meet the demands of military life. Studies show that military children demonstrate great resilience in the face of their parents’ involvement in the longest-running war in U.S. history. Young military families overwhelmingly say that stressors in their lives are not due to age, but to multiple moves, long and frequent deployments, and living in a world where few people understand what they’re going through.
For those of us supporting families whose children have special medical or educational needs, the young age of these families has particular relevance. Very young children are highly susceptible to family stress and military families have a unique set of stressors. I read one story about a young soldier’s family where the soldier had served a total of three deployments to war zones over six years. He and his wife had two children under age four. During those six years they had moved twice for his Permanent Change of Station (PCS; assignment to new duty location). Not all military families experience these levels of change, but the possibility always exists.
Children receiving Early Intervention Services (EIS) or special education services may be even more vulnerable to these disruptive conditions. Their ability to respond to interventions may suffer or they may regress.
It’s important to know if the families you help are active duty military families, so you can identify these challenges and direct parents to the most appropriate support. If the family has experienced highly traumatic stress, PTSD should also be considered.
What’s the final take-away on young military families?
Learn what their lives are like, as with any family you help. You can’t walk directly in their shoes, but you can walk beside them. Be alert to circumstances unique to military life. They’ll appreciate that you took the time to understand!
 Lundquist, J. and Xu, Z. (2014), Reinstitutionalizing Families: Life Course Policy and Marriage in the Military. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76: 1063–1081. doi: 10.1111/jomf.12131
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