The recent passage of legislation that will provide greater career opportunities for licensed professional counselors within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sparked several conversations regarding the enormous support needed by military personnel — both those currently serving and those who have served — and their families.

A friend and I were reflecting on our responsibilities as military wives in the 1970s. We moved from Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H., to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. Military life for our families was very stable and relatively noneventful. Significant memories include squadron activities, air shows and re-enlistment ceremonies.

In comparison, I have a son who serves in the U.S. Navy. During his 14 years of service, he has had approximately 40 temporary assigned duties ranging from a week to six months. In that same period, he has experienced 10 “permanent” duty station changes, necessitating that he and his family move each time. The many short-term relationships, complications of spousal employment, university transfer issues, escalated misbehavior of the children, day care arrangements, spousal loneliness and increased financial obligations are just some of the issues military personnel face that can lead to frustration. 

A family friend is currently addressing the long-term deployment of his wife. He has dealt or is dealing with various issues, including the anticipation of loss, detachment, emotional disorganization, family recovery and stabilization, anticipation of the homecoming and an expected renegotiation of the marriage contract.

I live in a city that experiences a great deal of military mobility. As an elementary school administrator, I have witnessed the emotional challenges of many children facing loss and transition. With the extensive media coverage of war-related risks and casualties, these feelings of fear and insecurity have only heightened. Counselors at many of the elementary schools where children of military personnel attend emphasize that creating an open, honest, supportive and predictable environment is only one of the many challenges. Sometimes preparation for the separation is lengthy; at other times, the absence of a military father, mother or spouse comes with little warning. 

I asked a few American Counseling Association members to share their experiences of working with military families. I think many of us can relate to what they have to say.

Maj. Steven E. Fetrow: There are unique challenges faced by children being raised in a military environment. Deployment is probably the No. 1 issue/topic of discussion in modern times. Life apart from a dad or mom who is deployed is stressful enough. Deployments to the combat zone add to the stress. I do a lot of training with family members regarding issues of combat stress and the impact on the family.

Richard C. Henrickson: Many times our veterans return from combat situations and continue to experience the horrors they faced there in nightmares. Over and over again they relive the loss of the lives of their military colleagues and the witnessing of the killing of innocents. Many times their nightmares are focused on their fear of the loss of their own lives and the guilt that accompanies their survival or guilt associated with their inability to rejoin their colleagues because of the seriousness of their wounds. These nightmares often cause challenges for their partners because of the manner in which they act out these nightmares during their sleep. The fact that most families are able to help our veterans return to their previous lives and move forward is a testament to their love, courage and resiliency.

As I listen to many of the veterans who are returning from the Middle East, I am reminded of the feelings I had when I returned from the Pacific Theatre at the conclusion of the Vietnam era. My wife has helped me face many of my fears, just as the wives and partners of many of our veterans have helped them. We must also not forget the children who have faced the challenges of changed and lost parents. These children display courage that is beyond explanation. I am a veteran of the Air Force, my father is a Navy veteran, my brother is retired from the Army, and my father-in-law is retired from the Air Force. I think it is important to note that many families have numerous members who have served our country proudly and have provided them the emotional support to complete their tasks. Counselors need to fight for the right to provide services to our veterans and their families in all needed areas. Our veterans and their families deserve nothing less.

Liza Hita: I think something interesting about military families are the children growing up in a wartime era or when we’re in a “peacekeeping” time. There are many family system dynamics that come into play. I grew up in a post-Vietnam era household where both my parents went to war. I think from a mental health perspective, it is very important to recognize that veterans do not experience war alone and that the experience of war does not end when a tour is over. Families, maybe for generations to come, are affected in many ways. 

The responsibility of the profession is to address things systemically and recognize the family and community dynamics of military service, especially while troops are in combat. It’s not unpatriotic to see these issues and understand the depth of trauma to soldiers, their children and their loved ones. It’s neglectful not to.

LaVerne Jordan: The situation I most remember was when my husband received orders to go to Vietnam. We had a child under 1 year and another baby on the way. The stress and sense of responsibility on me was overwhelming. Because I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, I was able to relocate to be with my mother, which provided the physical and emotional help that I needed. 

As I reflect on these memories, I am so much more aware of the big picture. Many service personnel are very young and often have young families. During the few years that they are in the military, they transition from civilian life to military life, often have a deployment, may add a child to the family and transition back into civilian life — and this is a normal scenario. Then there are the crisis situations, which involve loss of a friend, loss of a body part, loss of youth and a measure of innocence. For family members, loss might include the loss of a parent, spouse or child and/or the adjustments necessary to deal with the physical or emotional scars incurred during conflict. They need to be understood and supported, for this is a very stressful lifestyle.

Although I realize other families may experience some of the issues referenced here, I have chosen to focus on military families. It is imperative that we, as professionals, know and access all the available websites, 800 numbers and community and governmental support systems. These resources recognize all branches of the military and areas of concern specific to the dynamic of changing family circumstances.

If the Iraq War were to end tomorrow, would we be prepared to meet the vast number of mental health needs? To ensure that the issues of our military families are met, our preparedness and resourcefulness must come to the forefront. 

I hope that you will feel free to communicate with me via e-mail at or by calling 800.347.6647 ext. 232.