Recently, President Donald Trump posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — the United States’ highest military award — to Tech Sgt. John A. Chapman. An Air Force combat controller, Chapman was killed by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in March 2002 after his helicopter crashed. During the ensuing battle, Chapman lost consciousness and was left for dead, only to regain consciousness and continue fighting. He destroyed several Taliban bunkers, enabling a rescue force to successfully extricate his comrades.
During the ceremony, Trump paid special attention to Chapman’s family, telling the audience that even as Chapman completed “one of the most rigorous training programs in all of the military,” he was also a family man. “Whenever John was home,” Trump explained, “he immediately took on ‘dad duty,’ reading to the girls, playing with them, and even building an amazing swing set.”
Public celebration of American service members over the past 18 years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere has primarily recognized military families as either stalwart in their capacity for patriotic sacrifice or as witnesses who can vouch for the service members’ heroism.
But reducing military families to supporting actors in these celebrations overlooks the struggles many have endured as they have lived with the repeated deployments, injuries and deaths that have resulted from America’s 21st-century wars. We have not provided adequate support for these families, nor have we sufficiently grappled with the toll these wars have taken or the lessons they should teach us about military adventurism.
The shift in 1973 to the all-volunteer force required the military to become more attuned to the long-standing strain that service places on families. Both the Army and the Navy studied the well-being of spouses of deployed sailors and soldiers, and their research revealed that even short deployments were stressful for those at home. That spurred the formation of Family Support Groups, which “prepared families for deployments, helped them cope for the duration, and assisted them in adjusting to the soldier’s return.”
In the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Army celebrated the success of these groups, even as it increasingly focused on training spouses to be resilient in the face of deployments.
While these systems worked well in helping families cope with deployments of the length and nature that the Army experienced in the 1980s and the 1990s, they were not calibrated to withstand the demands of a prolonged war.
That quickly became evident in the first years of the Iraq War. Newspapers around the country began reporting on military spouses who struggled with anxiety and depression, as well as sleeplessness, substance abuse and nightmares. Spouses wrote of living under the strain that every newscast, phone call or knock at the door might bring devastating news.
The strain of war affected children as well. In 2005, researchers at Virginia Tech concluded that adolescents whose parents were deployed frequently exhibited “several signs consistent with depression including lost interest in regular activities, isolation, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, sadness and crying.” In 2007, an Army wife named Kristy Kaufmann wrote to Chief of Staff George Casey that “soldiers and their families are understandably starting to buckle under the incredible amount of stress and pressure” and that “wives are tired, apathetic and frankly, pissed off at the Army for sending their husbands into harm’s way yet again.”
The Army took these issues seriously. Secretary of the Army Pete Geren testified to Congress that “one of the most important strategic issues that we face as a nation” was the question : “If we’re going to retain the all-volunteer force, how do we retain the all-volunteer family?”
Under Geren and Casey’s leadership, the Army unveiled the Army Family Covenant in 2008. The multimillion-dollar program considerably increased support for families in areas as diverse as increased counseling options, better recreational facilities, more easily available child care and greater attention to family wellness programs. There were programs designed to strengthen marriages — one of which was colloquially known as “How Not To Marry A Jerk” — and Super Bowl parties, holiday balls and mandated shortened workdays on Fridays so troops could spend time with their families. By the end of 2008, the Army had nearly doubled the budget of the Family, Morale and Welfare command and hired 1,079 new Family Readiness Support assistants.
Although the military clearly took seriously the strain that two prolonged wars placed on spouses and children, these efforts weren’t sufficient to address the needs of troops and families.
A year into the covenant, Kaufmann made that point in The Washington Post, explaining that “too many military families are quietly coming apart at the seams.” “New gym equipment and child-care facilities are great,” she wrote, “but expanding and implementing mental health services so a soldier’s child doesn’t have to wait six months to see a psychiatrist is more important.”
She received hundreds of emails from spouses who agreed with her. One wrote, “The family covenant is lip service at its best.” Another reflected, “I’ve seen what happens to them (us) during deployments. Things that I never imagined that I would see — mental illness, abuse, infidelity (to include pregnancies) and emotional breakdowns.”
Statistics bear out these anecdotal complaints. A 2013 study found “that wives of deployed service members had elevated diagnosis of depression, anxiety, acute stress, adjustment disorder and sleep disorders.” As late as 2014, more than one in five military families reported depression in their children when a parent was deployed. For all of the military’s efforts, the families and children of troops continue to suffer.
This reality helps put the recognition of service members like John Chapman in perspective. There is no question of his heroism, and his family is doubtless proud of him. But the public celebration of members of the military and veterans too often ignores the high price paid by military families who likewise endure stress, anxiety, depression and other mental-health struggles as the nation continues to wage protracted wars.
It is thus worth reflecting on an earlier memorial to Chapman. Sometime in 2002, someone who knew Chapman and his family visited the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, they left behind a note reading, “Never Forget 9/11 Tsgt. John A. Chapman, USAF-CCT, KIA Afghanistan, March 4, 2002, Buried in Windber, Pennsylvania” with two photographs — one of Chapman’s wedding and the other of him in uniform — and handprints, presumably those of his then 6- and 4-year-old daughters. The item recognized Chapman as an airman, but also as a husband and father who left behind a wife and children who had to confront the aftermath of his death.
This fuller picture of Chapman should guide the treatment of our servicemen and women. We frequently celebrate our service members, but without focusing enough attention on the traumas of their service and the resources that they, their spouses and their children need to surmount those traumas. Too often, spouses and children are reduced to supporting actors in a celebratory narrative, with their own struggles rarely garnering much notice.
Asking those spouses and families about their experiences might advance a conversation about the impact that these wars have had on the nation and the resources that the country must commit to recuperate. It might also help us think more deeply about the consequences of the military adventurism the country is often all too willing to embrace.
David Kieran is assistant professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College and author of “Signature Wounds: The Untold Story of the Military’s Mental Health Crisis,” which will be published by New York University Press in the spring of 2019.