10 Ways to Better Support Military Families in Your Community

Military families face similar challenges as civilian families while also navigating unique experiences like frequent moves and deployment. Here’s how to show them support.

The Bautista family.
The Bautista family. . Photo: Courtesy of the Bautista family for Parents / Design: Alex Sandoval

Military families face many of the same challenges as civilian families. While several active duty service people and their families live on military bases, 70 percent of military-connected families live in civilian neighborhoods. My family is one of them—my partner is a U.S. Army Staff Sargent and we are currently stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, and live in a nearby neighborhood. Military families are navigating this crazy housing market like everyone else and searching for the best schools for our kids. We're chauffeuring our little ones to Scouts, cheerleading practice, and band. We're rushing to the pediatrician for a broken leg. We're cleaning up after a dog that ate an entire birthday cake and a toddler covered in yogurt. Yes, all of that…

Then there are the unique challenges military families face: parents giving birth alone in a hospital in a foreign country, couples eloping and not meeting their in-laws for more than a decade, or moving every couple of years and navigating everything that comes with it. Because of these frequent moves, military families often feel disconnected and unwelcome in their new neighborhoods. Always being the new family in town due is agonizing; this makes it hard to maintain friendships for children and depending on your personal view of politics in America, a military family's presence may not be met with open arms and kind words.

Civilian families can help change this reality by getting to know military families and the unique lifestyle they live. Here are ways to support the service people in your community.

1. Welcome Military Families to your Neighborhood

It's important for military families who are new to a community or who are moving from one part of town to another to feel welcomed by their neighbors. Military families want their kids—and, as importantly, themselves—to feel accepted and included. Just saying hello can be a great way for families who don't know each other well to build relationships and make connections. In the military community, speaking to new neighbors is appropriate; because more than likely you'll associate with them in some form or fashion. This is also an opportunity to learn about military life and what support these families need.

2. Thank a Service Member

When you see service members in your community, take a moment to thank them for their service and ask about their children. Everyone appreciates being thanked. And when you see military children, let them know they're not alone; and that their sacrifices haven't gone unnoticed. Not all service members wear a uniform every day, many of them are hidden heroes living amongst us and working traditional jobs within our communities. A few ways to spot a service member is to look for Military themed lawn signs or decor, someone wearing a military veteran hat, a license plate decal, or a tattoo.

If you are an educator, consider highlighting military-connected families during April, the Month of the Military Child, May, Military Spouse Appreciate Month, and in November, for Veterans Day. If you ask, most individuals will tell you all about their time in service. The military community is a proud one with stories of honor and sacrifice they don't mind sharing with anyone who'll listen.

3. Understand Deployment and Show Support

The meaning of deployment in the military can vary. Deployment doesn't always mean going into battle. Sometimes deployment is a year-long rotation abroad without family, other times it's an extended training with another country's armed forces. Deployments can be very hard for children and parents. Imagine missing your child's most memorable moments like their first word and steps, or high school graduation. Some children also experience times when both of their parents are deployed at once. Here are some tips for supporting military children and spouses in your community during a parents' deployment:

Give families time to process their emotions.

If a neighbor who's normally friendly seems distant after a member of their family deploys, give them space. The first few weeks of a deployment can be the hardest for military families; adjusting to new routines, life without a parent, and schedule changes can add stress and anxiety. Don't take it personally. They come around once they've adapted to their new circumstance.

Keep in contact with caregivers.

If you know a military member is deployed routinely ask how everyone is doing. Just a simple acknowledgment goes a long way.

Learn about resources available to military families.

You can visit websites like Military One Source or Defense.gov to get a better understanding of military resources available to families in need.

4. Learn About the Different Military Branches

Each branch of service has its own rank structure, specific missions, and challenges. They also offer different benefits such as housing, education, job opportunities, medical facilities, and more. By familiarizing yourself with each military branch's programs and support services, you can better understand the needs of local military families. The military currently has six branches; the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, and Space Force. Each branch has duty stations throughout the world that contribute to the safety of our nation.

These are easy ways to remember the military branches:

  • Army= Land
  • Air Force= Air
  • Marine= Land, Air, and Sea
  • Navy= Sea
  • Coast Guard= Coastline
  • Space Force= Space

5. Bring Military Support to Your Child's School

Military children often deal with separation anxiety. They commonly move from place to place and start over at a new school every few years based on where their parents are stationed. Supporting military families can start at school. If your child's school does not have a military support group and you know that there are new military families in town, consider starting one or hosting your own support event.

6. Teach Students about Military Culture

Children of military families often attend school with peers who have little knowledge about their family's military experiences. Military children may face discrimination and feel alienated from their peers, especially when asked questions like, "Do you miss your parents?" or "Where is your parent deployed?" The best way to help students overcome these feelings of isolation is by teaching their classmates about military culture.

The Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) can invite veterans into classrooms as guest speakers so students can learn more about military service members' contributions to our nation. Teachers can also have students create military-themed projects such as scrapbooks, dioramas, or book reports on military history. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) has chapters throughout the United States and can assist you in finding someone in your local community to share their military experience.

If there aren't any military resources available at your school already, teachers can visit Sesame Street for Military Families, and download or print relevant resources for military families.

7. Understand Military Spouse Employment

Military spouses contribute billions annually to our nation's economy, yet they face regular discrimination as they search for employment. This is because many military spouses move frequently and often professional licenses and certifications don't automatically transfer from state to state. This is a long-standing issue that has left many military spouses unemployed or underemployed. However, military spouse employment has grown significantly over the years. A recent study revealed that 53 percent of military spouses were employed while their partners were on active duty. Programs like Hiring our Heroes and SECO offer opportunities specifically for military spouses.

8. Attend Public Events at Military Installations

Attend a community event at a nearby military installation. These events are great opportunities for civilians and service members to build social connections and create shared experiences that last long after the event is over.

Here are three ways you can attend events at local installations

  • Visit your local military base during open house or family day.
  • Attend a military concert or public holiday event.
  • Volunteer with military-family organizations like Blue Star Families or the USO.

9. Advocate for Military Families

Military families often experience increased stressors due to their service members' employment requirements, frequent relocations, and deployments. Children may feel their identity is split between being a military child and a regular kid. Military families need advocates—whether it's helping your neighbors find local support services or simply being there for them when they are in need. The most important thing you can do is listen. Ask how you can help. Be a good listener when they tell you what they need from you—and then do it! Don't just say that you'll support them; show them.

10. Be Kind

Even if you don't have a family member or friend who is currently serving, it can be challenging to watch friends and neighbors cope with these major life changes. Our military service members and their families are doing a lot for our country—but you can do a lot for them, too. Military children experience more frequent moves, school changes, and higher parental stress levels than non-military children. While you can't control these military-related stressors, you can have a positive impact on military children. They deserve your attention and respect—just like any other child!

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