Expectations and Roles of Military Connected Family Members

Expectations and Roles of Military Connected Family Members

Michael D. Crandall
Michael D. Crandall

Founder and Consultant

Published: March 2, 2020

It’s time to have a serious discussion of the expectations and roles which are placed on military connected family members. The military culture has a long list of unwritten but well understood rules and roles which military connected family members are expected to fulfill and live life under. These rules and roles in some cases have been codified into specific duties and expectations which among others include the expectation that military spouses or children serve as those responsible for maintaining and securing the home, those responsible for serving as brand ambassadors, and those responsible for serving as adjunct staff to the military service member.

Defenders of the Homefront

The historical duties of the military connected family goes back in martial history to ancient times where spouses would be left as the last person in charge of defending the castle, the fortress, the Homefront during time of war. The warrior would sally forth with his or her troops to take the battle to the enemy with the understanding that for however long it took their spouse and children would take care of the day to day operations of the home and prepare for defense of the home and if the warrior and their forces were to fall or be scattered their spouses and eldest children would be the last bastion of defense of the homefront.

This role is often reinforced with spouses and elder children when soldiers in modern times go through deployment. The eldest child may be pulled aside and told that they are responsible for the household and helping the remaining spouse keep things together. This historical tradition that many military connected youth have gone through was shared by General H. Normal Schwartzkopf when he described the circumstances of his father’s deployment.

You know, when he left home to go over to Iran, you know he very ceremoniously presented me with the West Point sword and to a small boy when your father hands you the sword and says you’re now the man of the house take care of your mother and sisters you take that very seriously. I took that very seriously and of course we had a lot of problems. We really had a dysfunctional family because of my mother’s alcoholism that I discovered sort of you know…I didn’t know what was going on but all I knew is things weren’t right, they weren’t the way they were supposed to be.

General H Norman Schwarzkopf

Musil, D. (Director). (2005). Brats: Our journey home
[Motion Picture]. United States of America: Brats Without Borders.

Brand Ambassadors

As evidence to the fact that military connected family members are brand ambassadors we need look no further than the naming conventions which surround them. Military spouses associated with a member of the military in a specific branch of the service are often referred to as “name of service” + “husband/wives”. Children in much the same way are referred to by the branch of the service to which their parent belongs such as “Army Brats” or “Navy Juniors”. In this way we can see that the military connected family members are not associated directly with the military member’s career but rather are associated with the branch of service as though they have themselves enlisted into that branch of service.

The shared understanding that the military connected family are themselves not only connected to an individual who is employed or part of a military service branch but that in some shared way each family member is also somehow connected to that military service branch is very important when understanding the nature of the military service culture. Any such social connection between individuals and organizations and cultures tends to carry a large number of obligations, roles, and responsibilities from the organization to the individual but also should include clarity on the expectations from the individuals toward the organization.

Many individuals who have grown up in or married into service families can attest to the constraints and normative pressure placed upon them by the service member’s military organization and community. (Segal, 1989)

Segal, M.W. (1989). The nature of work and family linkages: A theoretical perspective. In G. I Bowen & D. K. Orthner (eds.). The organizational family: Work and family linkages in the U.S. military (pp. 3-36), New York: Praeger.

In fact the identification with the service identity is so strong that long after a military parent is no longer directly affiliated with service many adults continue to refer to themselves by their service oriented nomenclature. Once a ‘Brat’ always a ‘Brat’ is relatively well understood by children who grew up in a military connected service families, even if the service branch no longer recognizes the previous affiliation, no longer welcomes the individual into the fold, and even if the veteran community has lost interest in the individuals previous “service”.

The desire to maintain their connection with the only community where they have felt somewhat at home may be the reason many brats will in their adulthood carry on the military tradition and choose to enlist. However, it is important to note that the option to join military service is not a foregone conclusion based simply up to the decision of the individual. Many individuals, including Brats fail the physicals or other testing processes and are deemed ineligible for service. For an adult Brat this can be devastating.

Adults who grew up in military connected families perceive their connection as one of not only organizational affiliation but of cultural connectivity. They report:

  • stories of their parents being called into the Base Commander’s office over behavior which the Brat engaged in.
  • Stories about learning and using:
    • military protocols such as standing at attention
    • responding with military protocol and speech when being addressed,
    • recognizing rank insignia
    • the phonetic alphabet
    • radio codes, and
    • military acronyms and idiomatic expressions
  • Engaging in military customs and behaviors throughout their childhoods, such as (regardless of age) stopping whatever they were doing at 1700 hours and standing at attention with their hands over their heart facing toward where the flag would be on base while the bugle played over the loudspeakers, and finally
  • Receiving comfort in a final duty of behaving properly during the military service member or veteran’s funeral including properly following protocols, receiving the flag and providing due honor to the member and their service. This is their a final act of proper duty and honor to their family member and their service branch.

Adjuncts to the Military Member

Military connected family members are often drafted (or voluntold) into supporting their military family member in their role. The behavior of the military connected spouse as well as those of the children can be understood to directly reflect on the military member and can have an impact on that military member’s career. Military spouses often are drawn into specific roles and expectations which have been institutionalized within the military culture and lifestyle.

After World War II, military policy increasingly institutionalized family members’ roles

Beginning in the 1960s, the military adapted the strong tradition of spousal voluntarism

to develop a worldwide network of federally funded community organizations for service members called Family Centers. Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) at the unit level, often staffed by spouses and immediate family members, offer training and social support to family members and disseminate information about issues such as deployment and moving.

Clever, M. & Segal, D. R. (2013), The demographics of military children and families. The future of children 23(2) 13—39.

While there has been much talk about changes in the military over time there remains concerns about whether there is significant foundational change to the structure or roles. Perhaps exploring two narratives related to children’s perspectives of their parent roles and responsibilities several decades apart may provide a sense of the continuity of role expectation on military spouses. Let us begin with John Denver (the ultimate country boy?) who was the child of an army aviator and whose personal childhood experiences never included living in West Virginia or really much of any location that would be deemed as steeped in the traditional rural American experience (but that is a discussion for another time).

On the whole, though, Dad didn’t have a lot of time for playing. He was an officer and a gentleman and those titles carried with them a real load of social obligation. The military was a very political environment, fraught with conflict and difficulty. And I think my folks were caught up in the classic struggle for professional respectability. They worked hard at it. There were numerous occasions that required Dad’s presence, and often Mom needed to be at his side. If you meant to get anywhere in the squadron, you didn’t dare miss a commander’s call. You had to demonstrate unwavering loyalty at all times. You put in an appearance and you left your calling card to prove you have been in the right place at the right time. It showed that you were disciplined and organized.

Denver, J. &Tobier, A. (1994). Take me home: An autobiography. Rocky Mountain Merchandise, LLC

I invite you now to compare John Denver’s insight into how members of his military connected family were drawn into specific roles and duties in connection with their military family member’s role in the military from 1960s to a more contemporary account provided by a West Point Cadet from the 2010s.

So one of my favorite stories about this mandatory fun was my trip from Kansas to the Grand Canyon. My parents showed up to school one day to pick my brother and I up and said, “Get into the car” and we drove 15 hours down to the Grand Canyon with two stops. My dad didn’t like stopping. We got out of the car, pitched a tent, slept the night, my Dad woke us up real early probably around 5 or 6 and we hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, hiked back up, got in the truck and left. It’s things like that I will never forget. The Grand Canyon was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. But more than that, it was the time spent with my family.

Time spent with my father who had been deployed for 15 months and who I got to talk to twice during that time.

Time to see my mom who had been busy with the Family Readiness Group.

She had to be.

O J Hall

From a talk given by O J Hall, a West Point Cadet Speaking at TEDxWestPoint in 2017 on the topic Army Brat: Staying Grounded While Moving

Each situation describes how family members are subsumed into a support role for the career military member. This sublimation of roles often comes at a cost for military connected spouses and military connected children. As noted above it can take the attention of the military connected spouse away from their military connected children, sometimes at points at which those children most need the additional support. Further for those military connected spouses who are pursuing their own career goals it can have equally devastating consequences.

Frequent moves also mean that military spouses earn less than their civilian counterparts. Among married women employed full time, for example, the wage gap between military and civilian wives ranged from 20 percent to 29 percent, depending on education.

Clever, M. & Segal, D. R. (2013), The demographics of military children and families. The future of children 23(2) 13—39.

It is important to take a minute to understand I’m not demonizing the military or the military lifestyle here but rather intend that we have an honest and open conversation about what it means when we throw around slogan’s like


Each member of the military connected family has been called on to take on roles in support of their military member, in support of their community and in support of the mission. Many have made significant sacrifices and many struggle with the impacts of the lifestyle demands throughout their life. One of the most important things to understand when working with military connected families is that whether or not they have volunteered for this role or been born into the role they have often attempted to the best of their ability and to their utmost to rise up to the challenge and the simple courtesy of acknowledgement of their sacrifice goes a long way. Although it is not enough that we stop there. What these families and family members require is not simply a lip-service acknowledgement of their service and sacrifice but a very real understanding of their sacrifice but also a substantial level of support and relief within duties which they have carried on behalf of our nation and our people.

This calling is perhaps best described by Mary Edwards Wertsch, a military connected daughter, and an author who writes and speaks on the lived experience and impacts of military connected childhoods.

Back in the mid-1980s, while doing research at a conference about military families, I heard one of the highest ranking admirals in the Navy make a remark that had me grinding my teeth in fury.

He was the keynote speaker, and he clearly thought he was saying exactly what his audience largely composed of social workers, counselors, and spouses wanted to hear.

“I’m here to tell you,” he thundered proudly, “that the number one priority of the United States Navy is the military family!”

My blood boiled. Was this supposed to be believable? Anyone who has any passing acquaintance with the military knows that the number one priority of the military is never going to be the military family. It is, and must by definition be, the military mission. Everything falls in line behind that. He would have been a better speaker, and a better leader, if he had grounded his talk on that simple acknowledgement of the reality we all know.

That reality is both the glory and the crucible of military families. It tests them to the limit. It is the source of their pride and, for many, their undoing. Nearly all military families, no matter how well informed, find themselves confronting challenges they had never imagined. They need all the support they can get.

Mary Edwards Wertsch
Author of Military Brats : Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress
from a forward to
Counseling military Families: What Mental health Professionals need to know
by Lynn K. Hall

Adults who have been a part of military connected families, as well as professionals who work with Military Families have recommended various ideas for support services for current families including:

  • Stronger Counseling and Support Services
  • Predeparture and Re-entry Counseling and Workshops
  • Counselors Specifically Trained To Understand Cultural Context and Needs
  • Parental Support and Training
  • Additional Leave and Transition Services
  • A Generalized Need for Additional Support
  • Separation From Service – Transition Services – for Service Members and Their Families
  • Transition Counseling and Support
  • Counseling for Those Dealing With Unresolved and Disenfranchised Grief and Loss

Below I have included specific language with regard to each of the above recommendations. Clearly there is a need for additional support services to families and many more specifics which could be discussed and likely will in future blog posts.

Stronger Counseling and Support Services

“I would hope the military offers counseling to these families to support their chidlren’s emotional lives; we didn’t have that. Now may be different enough so that the military can make the change. Presently, I see the news stories of the soldiers, both male and female, heading off to distant locations (Phillipines, the Middle East, across our own country) and think of the contributions their families are making now. I hope that their contributes are recognized; ours were not.” (pp, 29-30)

Griffen, L. (2009). Linda Griffen. In M. Curtis (Ed), Growing up military: Every brat has a story, Vol 1. (pp. 29–30). Lexington, KY: CreatSpace.

Predeparture and Re-entry Counseling and Workshops

“it is important that human resource departments in sponsoring companies and organizations provide not only predeparture counseling and workshops but also similar support for personnel and families returning to their ‘homes.’” (p. 73)

Eakin, K. B.  (1996). You can’t go “home” again. In C. D. Smith (Ed.), Strangers at home: Essays on the effects of living overseas and coming “home” to a strange laND. (pp. 57-80) Bayside, NY: Aletheia Publications

Counselors Specifically Trained to Understand Cultural Context and Needs

have recognized the need for “academic, career, and psychological services for global nomads with counselors who are knowledgeable about the dynamics of a childhood abroad.” (p. 116)

McCaig, N. M. (1996). Understanding global nomads. In C. D. Smith (Ed.), Strangers at home: Essays on the effects of living overseas and coming “home” to a strange land. (pp. 99-120) Bayside, NY: Aletheia Publications

Parental Support and Training

“Some researchers have found that moving has positive effects on childhood development. Others suggest that the positive experience is not correlated with the move itself, but with the level of socialization the parents provide their children in preparing them for and supporting them before, during, and after the move. Other researchers have found both positive and negative effects related to parental attitude and guidance during moves. In this case, problems found in children may be a result of parents’ inability to cope with their own stresses of moving. In other words, as go the parents, so go the children.” (p. 130-131)

Ender, M. G. (1996). Growing up in the military. In C. D. Smith (Ed.), Strangers at home: Essays on the effects of living overseas and coming “home” to a strange laND. (pp. 125-150) Bayside, NY: Aletheia Publications

Additional Leave and Transition Services

“Military leaders should provide military parents time off without losing pay or vacation time for relocating children prior to and after deployment.” (p. 18)

“Family supportive policies and practices are important ways for the military to retain military personnel (see Bourg & Segal, 1999; Coolbaugh & Rosenthal, 1992)” (p. 17)

Kelley, M. L. (2002). The effects of deployment on traditional and nontraditional military families: Navy mothers and their children. In M. G. Ender (Ed.), Military brats and other global nomads: Growing up in organizational families. (pp. 3-24) Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers

A Generalized Need for Additional Support

“Lena had positive memories of her experiences as a military Brat and thought that people in the military should have children, but felt the military could make things go more smoothly.” (P. 76)

Cachevki Williams, K. & Liebenow Mariglia, L. M. (2002). Military brats: Issues and associations in adulthood. In M. G. Ender (Ed.), Military brats and other global nomads: Growing up in organizational families. (pp. 67-82) Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers

Separation From Service – Transition Services – for Service Members and Their Families

“Creating transition services to help personnel who are preparing to leave the military to reenter civilian life is essential.” (P. 78)

Cachevki Williams, K. & Liebenow Mariglia, L. M. (2002). Military brats: Issues and associations in adulthood. In M. G. Ender (Ed.), Military brats and other global nomads: Growing up in organizational families. (pp. 67-82) Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers

Transition Counseling and Support

“The emotional needs of Third Culture Children must not be underestimated, because they have additional challenges to overcome. They need to belong and become part of a new culture whether in school or in their new home location. If children are successful in overcoming these challenges, the resilience they have shown should help them to continue to accept challenge and ultimately become part of the new cultural context in which they live.” (p. 275)

Ebbeck, M. & Reus, V. (2006).  The experiences of third-culture children. In L. D. Adams & A. Kirova (Eds.). Global Migration and Education: Schools, Children and Families, (pp. 267–278) New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Counseling for Those Dealing With Unresolved and Disenfranchised Grief and Loss

“Unresolved grief is commonly reported as a lingering concern among adult Third Culture Kids, that is adults who were TCKs as children (Barringer, 2000; Cockburn, 2002; Pollock & Van Reken, 1999; Schaetti, 2002). Many of the attributes that particularly characterize TCKs—-Prolonged adolescence, feelings of rootlessness, alienation, and inability to make commitments (Barringer, 2000) can be tied to unresolved grief issues (Schaetti).” (p. 246)

“Consistent with other studies, their losses were identified as persons, places, pets, and possessions. Participants also spoke of the symbolic and existential meaning of many of the losses, in addition to their pragmatic aspects. Thus, the existential losses the participants experienced included the loss of a safe and trustworthy world, the loss of their identity (i.e., the sense of knowing who they were), and the loss of a place they could think of and call ‘home.’ These losses and the resulting grief may continue to influence the lives of TCKs into adulthood.” (p. 247)

“In addition, the grief experienced by TCKs clearly has characteristics of disenfranchised grief (Doka, 2002; Schaetti, 2002).” (p. 247)

“According to Doka (2002), disenfranchised grief most commonly occurs when the relationship between the griever and that which has been lost is not socially recognized.” (p. 248)

Gilbert, K. R. & Gilbert, R. J. (2011). Echoes of loss: Long-term grief and adaptation among third culture kids. In G. H. Bell-Villada, N. Sichel, F. Eidse & E. N. Orr (Eds.), Writing out of limbo: International childhoods, global nomads and third culture kiDS (pp. 246-262) New Castle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.