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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
May 27, 2011

Advice to the Candidates:
Floridians Rank Care of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans and Their Families as a High Priority

Dr. Susan A. MacManus
University of South Florida

     Memorial Day is a time to reflect on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to their country for the cause of freedom.  The holiday comes at a time this year when presidential candidates have already begun their journeys into our state, currying favor among Florida voters in anticipation of a highly competitive 2012 race. It would behoove the candidates to remember that Florida voters of all political persuasions put a high priority on the assistance given to the state’s veterans and their families.

     Florida is home to more than 1.6 million veterans—the third largest population of veterans in the nation. More than 22,000 active-duty Floridians have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Florida has also sent nearly 22,000 National Guard members to the two combat theaters. While over one-fourth of adult Floridians have a tie to someone who has been deployed to these areas since 9/11 (Figure 1), concern for these men and women goes much deeper. Ninety-two percent of the Sunshine State’s residents think it is very important to help returning OIF and OEF service members. (See Figure 2.) There has been a growing realization of the collateral damage on the home front as these military personnel and their families cope with the aftermath of war.   

Figure 1
Floridians’ Connection to a Veteran Deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan



Source: Statewide telephone survey of 800 Floridians 18 and older, conducted by Susan Schuler & Associates, Inc, July 13-26, 2010, margin of error +/-3.5%.


Figure 2
 Importance of Helping Returning Service Members


Source: Statewide telephone survey of 800 Floridians 18 and older, conducted
by Susan Schuler & Associates, Inc, July 13-26, 2010, margin of error +/-3.5%.


HELP IS A HIGH PRIORITY: VA NEEDS TO DO MORE

     A recent research project,1 including a statewide survey of 800 adults, finds that Floridians are particularly paying close attention to how much help is being given to those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—and to the special needs of their families.2 A majority of Floridians feels that much more still needs to be done by governments at all levels. Topping the list is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (See Figure 3.) 

     The most formidable common problems faced by Florida’s returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are economic hardships (jobs, finances, homelessness) and health-related issues (PTSD, mental health, substance abuse, depression, and debilitating wounds, amputations, and permanent disabilities). Each of these broad areas has received considerably more attention by government agencies and nonprofit organizations than strained family relationships. Yet, the Florida study found that a sizable portion of those surveyed identify family problems as serious
                                             
1The study was commissioned by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice Community Foundation and administered by the James Madison Institute, Tallahassee.
2 The full report released earlier this year titled “Collateral Damage: Floridians Coping with the Aftermath of War,” can be accessed at GulfCoastCF.org or jamesmadisoninstitute.org. It was co-authored by Susan A. MacManus and Susan C. Schuler, and edited by David Gulliver.

consequences of service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Candidates making their pitch to Florida voters would do well to focus considerable attention on family members as well as OIF and OEF service members as they discuss veterans and foreign policy issues involving the military.



Figure 3
Percent Who Think More Needs to be Done For
Florida’s Returning Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans

Source: Statewide telephone survey of 800 Floridians 18 and older, conducted by Susan Schuler & Associates, Inc, July 13-26, 2010, margin of error +/-3.5%.



Don’t Forget the Families

The straining of family relationships increases as deployments become longer and more frequent. Well over half of Florida’s OIF and OEF service members have been deployed multiple times. (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4
Number of Times Veteran Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan
(Identified by Family Members)

Source: Statewide telephone survey of 800 Floridians 18 and older, conducted by Susan Schuler & Associates, Inc, July 13-26, 2010, margin of error +/-3.5%.

     Relationship problems extend beyond just their immediate family. Actually, veterans think of “family” in much more inclusive terms—spouses, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other very special people. The uniqueness of the Florida study is its use of this broader definition of family. 

Family Members’ Assessments of Deployment Impact on Their Lives

     Three-fourths of these Florida veterans’ family members (broadly defined) acknowledge their own life has been impacted by their OIF/OEF veteran’s deployment—48%, “a lot;” 27%, “somewhat.”  When asked how, 29% point to a negative impact (worry; loneliness; financial difficulties; made vet harder to deal with).  Twenty-seven percent describe the impact in more positive terms (pride; greater awareness of the conflict; made me a stronger person). Another 38% do not see the impact in either positive or negative terms, but in terms of magnitude—29% see little or no effect, while 9% view the impact on their life as “large.”

     Female family members are more likely to note problems, especially financial, and to worry about their service members. Family members with no military experience seem to have more difficulty in handling “hard-to-deal-with” veterans. Family members with prior military service themselves are less likely to have seen any impact on their life from their veteran’s deployment.

Family Members’ Assessments of Deployment Impact on their Veteran

     Family members’ opinions are somewhat mixed as to the type of changes the deployment has made in their OIF/OEF veteran’s life. Those citing negative impacts (family issues; withdrawn; psychological damage; injured, illness; death; career; unemployment) nearly equal the proportion mentioning positives (maturation; self confidence; patriotism and service to country; education). On balance, family members are more likely to identify negative deployment-related impacts on their veteran than the service member—a phenomenon also observed in the study’s focus group analyses.

A FAMILY VALUE ISSUE FOR BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES

     The stresses of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have burdened the men and women serving in the U.S. military and their families.  The troops go from deployment, where fellow soldiers have clearly defined roles, supporting each other, to home, where roles are fluid, but others are largely dependent on the veteran. In the field, they must respond immediately, and often with force, to any provocation; at home, they must forego what has become almost instinct. 

     It’s little wonder, then, that returned troops display signs of everyday stress at greater rates and with more dire consequences than ever, and far more than their civilian counterparts.  The place that should be their refuge—their home—often is a source of stress itself…and not just for them, but their families. 

    This is one family value issue that presidential candidates from both political parties should be in agreement on...and none too soon. Florida voters expect it and will be watching!