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Pandemic Magnifies Problems for Military Families

Blue Star Families survey finds COVID-19 adds to struggles of veterans, active service members, spouses

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Time away from family, balancing home life, and spousal unemployment are just a few of the challenges the military community faces that may have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest “Military Family Lifestyle Survey” from Blue Star Families, an organization that supports military families.

The findings come from nearly 11,000 military families worldwide who were polled in September and October 2020. Here are some of the key issues explored by the wide-ranging survey of active-duty, National Guard and Reserve service members, veterans, and their families.

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Time away from family

Being away from family is a perennial issue for military families, and the pandemic only served to exacerbate the problem, based on survey responses. The amount of time spent away from family was the top concern for all segments of military respondents polled last fall except active-duty spouses (who listed their top concern as their own employment struggles).

"Time away from family, already a top concern, may have been intensified by unexpected quarantines and extensions, or have had a greater impact on service members and family members managing work and home demands in an unprecedented work, school, and home environment,” the report states.

Mental health

COVID-19 has affected the mental well-being of many Americans, including military families. Six out of 10 military respondents said the pandemic made their overall happiness worse or much worse. Meanwhile, among their top concerns were access to pay and benefits earned through military service, routine access to health care, and support for those afflicted with PTSD and/or combat stress.

Despite the increased use of telehealth services, active-duty families in particular reported obstacles to obtaining mental health care. Twenty-one percent of active-duty families reported that they would like to receive mental health care but cited barriers such as getting time off work, concerns about confidentiality and potential harm to their career. Spouses focused on difficulty scheduling appointments, childcare and knowing where to get help. Only 9 percent of active-duty respondents indicated they received mental health assistance remotely before the pandemic began; this figure jumped to 28 percent after the coronavirus outbreak erupted.

The survey linked mental health to the quality of sleep that military families reported. Although active-duty service members indicated the most difficulty in obtaining an adequate amount of sleep (43 percent), veterans and their spouses trailed close behind (40 percent and 39 percent, respectively).

Top 5 Issues for Veteran Families

  • Time away from family (38 percent)
  • Military pay (31 percent)
  • PTSD/combat stress/traumatic brain injury (30 percent)
  • Military/VA health care (28 percent)
  • Military benefits (24 percent)

Source: “2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey"

Furthermore, COVID-19 is also thought to increase stress on an already strained military. Within the civilian community, rates of suicidal ideation are highest among the young, but within the military, the percentage who reported suicidal thoughts was highest among veterans who had separated from the service within the past three years (11 percent). This was followed by children of active-duty service members (6 percent), active-duty spouses and service members (both 4 percent).

Military spouses and employment

Despite military hiring initiatives, active-military spouses perceive employers to be hesitant to hire or promote them. What's more, the coronavirus caused the financial situation to be worse or much worse for 31 percent of respondents, while 60 percent experienced stress because of their financial situation.

The current unemployment rate of military-spouse respondents is almost seven times the rate of their civilian counterparts. Those who aren't employed cite the difficulty of balancing household obligations and the unpredictable schedules of their service-member partner as a major obstacle in getting a job.

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Just over half of active-duty spouses (51 percent) said their military affiliation prevented them from receiving a promotion, compared with only 16 percent of veterans. Meanwhile, active-duty spouses were least likely among the groups surveyed to disclose their military affiliation during an interview.

Amid the pandemic, 49 percent of spouses were forced to reduce the numbers of hours they work because of COVID-19.


Outside of the pandemic, 2020 reignited the conversation around racial inequities and brought more attention to overlooked challenges. Eight percent of veterans of color reported racial discrimination as one of the reasons why they left military service.

Furthermore, 26 percent of service members of color reported experiencing racial discrimination in their unit, and 21 percent experienced discrimination when it came to promotions.

Meanwhile, 10 percent of female veterans said they left the service because of gender discrimination.

Editor’s note: The article, originally published March 30, 2021, has been updated with information on the military caregiver event.

Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency's Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.

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