Across the National Guard and Reserve components, the majority of military spouses report being satisfied with military life and support their service member staying in the military, according to recently released results of a Defense Department survey.
But less than a third of the spouses whose Guard or Reserve member had been deployed in the previous two years reported being satisfied with the military support they received during that deployment, an issue that has held steady since 2014.
This is according to results of a 2019 DoD survey just released — fielded two years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic. That also was before continuous activations over the past year of the National Guard for missions such as helping deal with civil unrest, the pandemic and natural disasters.
The year 2020 has been called “the year of the Guard” because it was called on so frequently. National Guard Bureau officials have said guardsmen served for 21 million “personnel days” during 2020.
Overall, 61 percent of National Guard and Reserve spouses reported being satisfied with military life in 2019, a trend that’s held for 10 years. Army Guard spouses reported slightly lower satisfaction rates of 58 percent; Army Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve spouses had the lowest satisfaction rates at 53 percent.
“It will be interesting to see whether this changes based on COVID,” said Kim Hunt, senior research manager for the nonprofit Blue Star Families. “The activations and deployments were felt more in the Guard than in active-duty or Reserve.”
DoD announced the results of the survey on Tuesday, two years after it was fielded from January to June 2019.
“The cycle was unusual given COVID-19,” according to DoD spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence. “The Department focused on the 2019 Active Duty Spouse Survey results first and released those publicly in December, 2020.”
Spouses of members of the Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve were surveyed. The surveys were sent to a randomly selected, scientific sample of 50,815 people and 6,596 responded. These surveys generally fielded every two years.
DoD expects to field the next Reserve Component Spouse Survey in 2022, Lawrence said. Its content has not been finalized, she said, so information about whether the survey will include questions targeted to address the impact of COVID-19 was not available.
“Understanding trends among spouses and what really matters most helps DoD improve and prioritize policies, programs and resources to help military families thrive,” Patricia “Patty” Montes Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, said in the DoD announcement of the survey results.
Of those who responded, 75 percent had children under age 18; 85 percent were female; 27 percent were minority; 43 percent had no college or some college; 34 percent had a four-year degree; and 23 percent had a graduate/professional degree.
In addition, 65 percent of the respondents lived an hour or less away from an installation, to include 36 percent who lived less than 30 minutes away. Another 35 percent lived at least an hour away.
Overall 66 percent of spouses said they supported their military member staying in the Guard/Reserve; and 59 percent said their support for their husband’s or wife’s decision to stay in hadn’t changed in the previous year.
In contrast, DoD’s survey of active-duty spouses in 2019 showed decreasing satisfaction with the military lifestyle and fewer supporting their service member staying in. There were signs of increased stress and distress.
While 54 percent of active-duty spouses rated their personal stress as higher than usual in 2019, that number was 37 percent in the Guard and Reserve community, a trend that has held steady since 2012. But half of those spouses whose Guard/Reserve member had deployed in the previous two years said their stress level had increased to a “large extent.”
Of Guard/Reserve spouses who had at least one child at home during a deployment within the previous 24 months, 63 percent reported that the most-affected child had an increased level of fear/anxiety.
Among other findings:
* The satisfaction with military life was higher in the Air National Guard (74 percent) and Air Force Reserve (69 percent), and lower in the Army National Guard (58 percent) and in the Army Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve (53 percent). In the 2019 active-duty spouse survey, 56 percent overall were satisfied with military life.
* The overall civilian National Guard/Reserve spouse unemployment rate was 7 percent, which has held steady since 2014. That compares to 22 percent of active-duty spouses reporting being unemployed in 2019. Spouses of Guard and Reserve members don’t move as much as active-duty spouses, which is a large contributing factor to higher active-duty spouse unemployment. Unemployment numbers for Reserve Component spouses could change somewhat in the next survey, based on the numbers of people who have been unemployed nationwide at some point during the pandemic, said Hunt.
*72 percent of Reserve and Guard spouses are in the labor force and, of those, 58 percent took time off work due to activation/deployments. Again this was pre-pandemic.
*68 percent of spouses assessed their financial condition as “comfortable,” 21 percent said they were having “some difficulty,” and 10 percent said “not comfortable.” Among active-duty spouses surveyed that year, 70 percent reported feeling comfortable financially.
Over the past 10 years, the percentage of those feeling financially comfortable has increased overall among Guard and Reserve spouses surveyed, and within each of the components. The Air Force Reserve spouses reported the highest numbers of feeling comfortable, at 77 percent. Army Guard spouses had the lowest numbers, at 64 percent.
Hunt said it remains to be seen whether the degree of financial comfort has changed.
Some spouses may have lost their job during the pandemic or had to leave it because of the increased activations and family commitments such as closed child care and children at home being schooled. The increased number of activations may have meant more money for some service members — or less for some who had to take more time from a higher-paying civilian job.
*42 percent of National Guard/Reserve spouses experienced an activation and half of those spouses experienced a deployment in the previous 24 months. Those experiencing current activations (20 percent) and deployments (20 percent) were higher than those previously surveyed from 2014 to 2017. In the 2019 active-duty spouse survey 12 percent noted their service member was currently deployed.
*30 percent of National Guard/Reserve spouses whose service member had been deployed in the previous 24 months said they were satisfied with the military support they received during the deployment. The highest level of dissatisfaction with deployment support was 47 percent in Army Reserve spouses. Among active-duty spouses previously surveyed, the satisfaction was less: 19 percent overall rated their support as excellent or very good.
*Satisfaction was higher with unit and service points of contact. About half of the Reserve/Guard spouses had a unit or service point of contact during the deployment, and 82 percent of those interacted with that person. Of those, 63 percent were satisfied with the assistance they received.
*62 percent of Guard and Reserve spouses said their general health is excellent or very good.
*The most used military benefit for those whose National Guard/Reserve member had been deployed in the previous 24 months was Tricare medical coverage, at 78 percent.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.