Transitions for Army National Guard Veterans and Resiliency in Military Families

  • Adrian Blow, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies
  • College of Social Science
Photo: Flickr user The National Guard

Men and women in military service are accustomed to facing challenges. Education, training, and preparation are hallmarks of readying military personnel for deployment. When their mission is complete they return to their familiar environment, but not everything is the same. A soldier's experience, whether in combat or peacekeeping missions, can evoke intense emotions that do not automatically disperse in the transition from service to civilian life. That experience, and the subsequent transition, can affect the soldier and his or her family in profound ways.

Adrian Blow has worked with the Michigan National Guard since 2006, steadily increasing collaborations and strengthening a working partnership to understand how service members reintegrate from active duty to civilian life, and how they cope with the stresses on them and their families.

An expert in marriage and family therapy, Dr. Blow's work focuses on community-based participatory research in a number of areas, including soldiers and military families, women living with breast cancer, infidelity, and HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Working with couples and their family members in stressful conditions has increased Blow's experiences with the problems that impact daily living.

The collaboration with the Michigan National Guard began after one of Blow's graduate students (Lisa Gorman, Ph.D.) expressed interest in working with military families, and Blow and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies agreed to support her research. They began with participation in one of the military's notable programs called Yellow Ribbon, a widespread effort that supports soldiers and their families throughout deployment. Initially, Blow and MSU students helped develop and deliver programming for weekend retreats involving returning soldiers and their families.

The National Guard Since 9/11

Blow, his students, and research colleagues have worked to learn the military culture, respect the hierarchy, build trust, and understand the circumstances that contribute to both successes and failures for National Guard members and their families.

Since the attack on New York City on September 11, 2001, Army Combat Brigades have experienced repeated deployments and manpower-heavy missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. That has resulted in mobilizing troops from the Guard and the Reserve for fatigue replacement rotations. The commitment from National Guard soldiers went from weekend training and brief deployment missions, primarily in the U.S., to international deployments of lengthier duration and intensity.

"Fifteen years ago the Guard was focused on recruiting, enlisting, and training members. The pressure was to equip and prepare a reserve force. Now, more than 40 percent of the force has been deployed just in the past ten years, often in situations with high operational demands, and it has implications for soldiers, their spouses, parents, and children," says Blow.

Tough issues for returning veterans, such as addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, traumatic brain or limb injuries, and suicide have compelled Michigan National Guard leaders and military supporters to develop or bolster reintegration services.

"National Guard soldiers return almost immediately to civilian life," says Blow. "One day they are with colleagues who may have depended on each other for their safety, and the next day they return to an office that doesn't have one other person who can relate to what that soldier has been doing for the past 12 or 18 months. Or they may be unemployed. They feel isolated, and they don't have ready access to available services that might be offered at a military installation," says Blow.

To date, Blow and his students and colleagues have participated in many workshops, briefings, and support group meetings during Guard-sponsored weekends at various locations around the state. Blow and the MSU team worked with faculty and staff from the University of Michigan Medical School, the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, as well as the Michigan Public Health Institute to brainstorm strategies for developing activities and initiatives with National Guard participants.

Active Duty to Civilian Life Study

In 2012 Blow received two grants totaling $1.5 million to address current military challenges. The first is a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to research resiliency in National Guard service members and their families, including spouses and parents, and the stressful transitions from active duty to civilian life. Lisa Gorman from the Michigan Public Health Institute is the Co-Principal Investigator. The three-year study, running until the end of 2015, is designed to bolster reintegration, prevention, and treatment programs, and strengthen the military's support for returning soldiers and their families. Co-investigators on the grant include Hiram Fitzgerald and Ryan Bowles from Michigan State University, Michelle Kees and Marcia Valenstein from the University of Michigan, and Angela Huebner from Virginia Tech University. The second grant, $200,000 from the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation, is to train mental health professionals to work with military families.

Blow served on the steering committee of the National Research Summit on Reserve Component Military Families held at the University of Michigan in April, a first of its kind national conference focused on the unique and often unaddressed mental health and well-being issues of National Guard and Reserve military families. The goal of the conference was to highlight successful and innovative ways to reach military families, and to establish a framework for a national network of collaborators who can move forward to address continuing needs.

"We do know that families evolve, but we need to learn more about how they evolve during stressful situations," says Blow. "Our partnership with the Guard members and their families keeps building, and the discoveries we make together can bring about changes to improve soldier reintegration efforts, develop effective trainings and programs to address their most critical needs, and promote quality of life for them and their loved ones."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement

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