Parents of Service Members: An Underserved Sub-Culture of America’s Armed Forces

"But, once they raise their right hand and swear to defend the Constitution, they aren’t “ours” anymore. The sudden transition from civilian to military is difficult not only for the service member, but I would boldly state, especially for parents. Without knowing what to expect leading up to our sons and daughters being dropped off at MEPS, we rely on the experiences of others who have come before us."
Written by Jerri Haaven on Oct 21, 2019
Parents of Service Members:  An Underserved Sub-Culture of America’s Armed Forces

Conflict and War, September 30, 2002

Just three mornings ago, I gently rubbed the head of my oldest son as I awakened him to say “see ya later.” He squinted at me in the early morning light, and obliged my prodding to, “please get up,” so I could give him one last hug before I had to go to work. 

I wrapped my arms around him, and, I asked him to squeeze me a little tighter. The tears that I had successfully held back until then, fell.  I prayed he didn't notice. I swallowed hard and pulled away from him, and looked in his eyes. They were the eyes of a young man – all 20 years of him. What ever happened to that little boy I once knew?  I told him I loved him and that I was so proud of him. The gesture just seemed so inadequate. He grinned at me, and said, "I love you, too." Certainly, there was more I could say to convey my feelings? But the words just didn’t come, and the room fell silent.

With that, I kissed my son and walked out the door and tried to fathom the reality that my son was heading into a war zone.

This scenario played out 14 years ago as the USS Constellation prepared to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and I remember that morning like it happened yesterday. Then, on November 2, 2002 my son joined a new generation of heroes who deployed to safeguard our country in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

On the surface, I was the embodiment of pride and unwavering support for my son. Each day I went to work and took care of my family and my home, and went about life like it was just another day.  Underneath, however, I was a towering collapse of unmanageable feelings of fear, anxiety and trepidation. Fortunately, I knew where I could go to find the support I needed.

When my son joined the Navy in 1999, the world, although chaotic, was “stable.” Yet, I still found myself needing to connect with other Military Moms who “understood” the rigors involved of military life. America Online (AOL) was one of the few resources available at the time, and I quickly found and joined listserve group of other Navy Moms to exchange group emails.

On the morning on 9/11, Parents of Service Members knew instantly that our sons and daughters would be thrust into the first war of the 21st Century. Our lives were altered forever, and we were paralyzed with fear.

Fortunately, newspapers like the San Diego Union Tribune (SignOnSanDiego) began to offer online community forums. It was through this venue, I created a thread for the USS Constellation to try and attract other families like myself who faced our uncertain futures.

And they came.

In the days leading up to the war, my SOSD family and I turned to each other as we watched helplessly for what was about to happen.

Then, on March 19, 2003, reality punched us in the gut as President Bush announced first strikes had been launched, known as “Shock and Awe.” He tried to steady the United States for the unfathomable truth, which was that there would be casualties. America held their breaths.

I ran to my computer to be with my SOSD family. As we huddled together, out of the blue from the middle of an active war zone, I received an email from my (then) 20-year-son. “Hi Mom, well, I guess it’s started. But don’t worry. I’m on a big ship surrounded by other big ships. I’ll be fine.” Our roles had suddenly reversed. He left to safeguard our country, and in doing so, now protected me.

America eventually exhaled, but military families did not – have not. We are still waiting to exhale.

In the years since that awful night of Shock and Awe, it has become my mission and personal quest to help other parents of service members, like those who helped me along the way, while simultaneously supporting our troops.

As our network grows with the help of the internet, what does America know about us? What should businesses and organizations and the mental health community be aware of?

What I can tell you is we are an important sub-culture of the military. And yet, we are the most underserved community in the Armed Forces. 

Our quest is to be recognized as the important source of support we are, and to be equipped with the knowledge and resources to be effective in our role as Parents of Service Members.

Who are Parents of Service Members?

Our Demographics

According to the Military OneSource 2013 Demographics Report, we are the parents of approximately 3.6 million men and women currently serving active duty and/or in the National Guard and Reserves.

Over 40% of those serving on active duty are 25 years of age or younger, and less than half of them are married.

The lower enlisted ranks of E-1 to E-4 make up the largest group of those who are serving (approximately 600,000 total), with the average age of an enlisted Marine being just 24 years old and unmarried, Parents of Service Members are the sole source of emotional support.

Yet, parents are not included in any official capacity with the Department of Defense (DoD), nor do we have access to important information such as dates of deployments or homecomings. Rarely, are we able to participate in military-sponsored family groups or activities, simply because of our proximity to a military installation where these events occur. This leads to enormous frustration, unnecessary worry and makes it difficult to carry out our day-to-day lives without fear and apprehension. But perhaps the greatest disservice is that we cannot be effective advocates for our adult children.

Instead, we must rely on our service-member and the Internet for information – which is not always reliable or timely.

Our Characteristics

In the 18 years since I became a Navy Mom, I have mentored hundreds of parents and have come to recognize the following as the top characteristics of the Parent of a Service Member:

  • We are proud / protective / anxious / fearful / sad / happy / patriotic / tearful / distracted – and sometimes obsessed - sometimes all at the same time
  • We are Resourceful / Resilient – we just want information and will do whatever it takes to get answers to our questions
  • We are very good at masking, especially with those who are not the Parent of a Service Member, or connected to the military in some capacity
  • We sleep with the phone at our bedside and welcome the chance to be awakened at 3am for that special call
  • We are willing to break rules at work where phones may not be permitted or authorized to ensure we do not miss a call
  • We agonize when we miss a call, and feel like we’ve let our adult child down when we don’t answer
  • We are “news junkies.” Some of us are known to have three computer screens up at the same time, especially leading up to deployments and homecomings – or when breaking news occurs
  • We are Empty Nesters – or, we are still raising our families
  • Some care for their Service Member’s children (our grandchildren)
  • Some of us are separated not only from our son or daughter, but also from grandchildren due to overseas duty assignments, or from divorce
  • We have an overwhelming and intense need to connect with other parents who understand life as a Parent of a Service Member
  • We are dedicated and supportive of other military families. Our purpose becomes being fully engrained in the life of the military – although we are kept at arm’s length from officials
  • We know our status could change from a Blue Star Parent to Gold Star Parent in a single instant

What Parents Need to Know

Parents know their adult children intimately. But, once they raise their right hand and wear to defend the Constitution, they aren’t “ours” anymore. The sudden transition from civilian to military is difficult not only for the service member, but I would boldly state, especially for parents. Without knowing what to expect leading up to our sons and daughters being dropped off at MEPS, we rely on the experiences of others who have come before us.

There is no Boot Camp for Parents. No training. No official source of information for us. No help from DoD. There is nothing for us to hold onto. With nothing official to lean on, we are left to our own devices to obtain information, and in doing so sometimes propel incorrect information to others further causing more confusion.

Boot Camp/Basic Training / Advance Schooling

Based on my experience as both a Veteran and a Navy Mom, I’ve learned there are common questions and themes from Parents of Service Members who wished they had more information, such as:

  • What is MEPS? The Military Enlistment Processing Station, where all new recruits arrive to be sworn into the Military, and where their military career and transformation from civilian to “warrior” begins.
  • Understanding Military Culture: This is likely the most important component of military life that parents could benefit from learning more about. Recognizing that our direct involvement is not only unwelcome by the Chain of Command, but could cause problems for their son or daughter if contact is made up the Chain of Command to complain or ask questions.
  • Military Rate/Rank Structure: The military is comprised of E-1 through E-9, or O-1 through 0-9, however parents who are not familiar with the structure feel disconnected from their service member when they are promoted, and we don’t understand the significance of the rank and file.
  • Military Acronyms: When our sons and daughters write or call, it’s usually filled with Military jargon, and it’s difficult for us to communicate effectively when we don’t know it.
  • Military Discipline – the Shaping of our Armed Forces Rank and File.
  • Operational Security (OPSEC) – It’s as much a parent’s responsibility to follow OPSEC as it is the service member – but very little is “taught” to parents. There is a tremendous amount of erroneous information for how to follow it, and what it entails. Not understanding it could cause great harm to our ships and boots on the ground.
  • Grief & Loss
    • How to recognize and support our young adult who may be experiencing grief or loss, such as the following:
      • Homesickness: What should I do when my son/daughter expresses they are having some difficulties coping?
      • “Loss” of Independence:  There is no ‘I’ in Team. How parents can boost morale and foster a “can do” mantra.
      • Death or Injury of a fellow service member: What to say/not to say to your son or daughter who may have experienced the death of a fellow shipmate or Marine.
      • Death of family member: How to provide emotional support following the death of a family member, when they cannot come home.
      • Re-integration (loss of friends/brothers/sisters upon discharge): The transition from being Active Duty to Civilian is sometimes extremely challenging for the service member.
    • Understanding our own Grief and Loss:
      • Letting go: The hardest thing a parent of a service member goes through, is they physical act of “letting go,” knowing that once they step through the door of the military, we are no longer in control.
      • Death in the family – Understanding when they can and cannot come home; supporting son/daughter with their grief when they return to duty.
  • Communication – Understanding the modes of communications available to a service member, and how often can we expect to hear from them:
    • Email: Can they email family? If so, how often? When should I be concerned if I don’t hear from him/her?
    • Phone calls: Can I send phone cards? How often can they call? Can I call them?
    • Social media: What is allowable on Social Media? Is it dangerous? Are pictures of my son/daughter ok to post?
    • Care packages: What should or shouldn’t I send?

Coping with Deployment/Tours of Duty

  • Importance of the Power of Attorney / Beneficiaries – without this important information in hand, parents are helpless to advocate for their adult child with complicated issues (e.g., legal, divorce, banking, loans, etc.), or with medical help, up to and including death.
  • Dealing with the threat of terrorism at home and abroad – while our sons and daughters go off to fight the war on terror, families left behind must deal with the political climate, and our own feelings, beliefs and fear of the unknown.
  • Taking care of yourself & family – we turn into news junkies. We may give up our interests, or curb our outside activities so as not to miss a call.
  • Deployment Cycles for Parents – life grief and loss, we go through Deployment Cycles like spouses do; however, it’s complicated.  Where do we fit in?
  • If you know your son/daughter is struggling (Morale), when should we bring concerns to the Ombudsman or Command? Or shouldn’t we?
  • Communication – “Why don’t I hear from my son/ daughter?” Probably the hardest part of being a parent, especially if our sons or daughters are married. We take a back seat.
  • Dealing w/ Noise: We are all so “plugged in,” that it’s become nearly impossible to ascertain the difference between Scuttlebutt (rumors), slanted media stories, public opinion and politics. What is real? We bristle when the public is opinionated in a negative way about the military.
  • If the unthinkable happens, what happens? Who is notified? How? When? What happens next? What should parents know about Gold Star status?
  • Homecoming / Reintegration – What to Expect? What do I do if I notice a change in my service member that may be affecting his life (PTSD, etc.)?

We know that each family is different, and everyone will react differently to the above situations. However, these questions come up repeatedly from anxious parents who just want to be as supportive as possible. In that regard, this is what Parents need:

“One Stop Shop” for:

  • Important contacts & phone numbers: Nothing will make a parent feel more helpless than not knowing who to contact if our instincts tell us something is wrong. Or, how to initiate an emergency notification in the event of the death or injury of a family member. Having access to these contacts without spending hours on the internet would be a relief to parents.
  • Networking opportunities (local, regional and national): Our online communities are wonderful support systems. But an event calendar by state would be helpful for parents to be able to locate others like themselves who just want to be around others who understand.
  • A Sanctioned library of resources to help ourselves (or our adult children) before, during and after military service. We want information that we can trust and rely on, especially how it relates to the military community.
  • Do’s & Don'ts of being a Parent of a Service Member for all stages of their son or daughter’s career – You’d be surprised how many parents will try to contact a Commanding Officer to have them check on their sons/daughters. This is likely because of the absence of reliable information available to parents.
  • Secure access to same information spouses receive (Family Readiness Groups, etc.). In today’s world of technology, and Single Sign On technology, there must be a way that parents can be integrated into the DoD system to obtain information that is pertinent to them.
  • DoD Approved/Recommended Hotels for nearby military installations – I can only speak for the hotels I’ve stayed in throughout my son’s career, but there are many hotels/motels that I would NEVER recommend a family stay in who might be attending Boot Camp graduations, deployments or homecomings. In corporate America, most large/global businesses will instruct their people to stay only at hotels that have been vetted for safety and security. The same should be applicable for military families.
  • How to plan for deployments/homecomings when information is rated as Secret (airfare, hotels, car rentals, etc.).
  • A recognized voice at the table of the DoD – We have so much knowledge and wisdom. Sitting at the table of the DoD would only strengthen what’s already working well, and improve areas to help bolster morale for families and the service member.

In Summary     

  • Parents of Service Members are an important component of the US Military family
  • We have no official voice. We would like to see programs and training built strictly for Parents of Service Members
  • We are fierce advocates for our adult sons and daughters
  • We mentor hundreds/thousands of other Parents of Service Members in an unofficial capacity
  • Nearly 1⁄2 of all service members are unmarried - Parents are their single source of support, yet we are the most ill-informed
  • Parents long for the same information spouses receive or have access to
  • We oftentimes ‘pick up the pieces’ of our service member’s lives after reintegration
  • We know all too well, that our Blue Star Status could change in a second to that of a Gold Star Parent

In conclusion for the next generation of parents who raise their right hand alongside their son or daughter in an unofficial capacity, it’s time to provide them with resources, tools, training and support to be successful for their own tour of duty.

Written by Jerri Haaven, U.S. Army Veteran & Navy Mom of 18 years