Combat deployments of long duration and unpredictable length are especially problematic for Reserve and Guard soldiers who return to civilian lives. The rationale for this pilot study was based on observations by clinicians conducting psychological evaluations at the NJ War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC). They noted that female veterans who were mothers of dependent children often reported reintegration issues unique to their roles as mothers and family caretakers, and that these concerns seemed to complicate their adjustment to home life. Based on anecdotal evidence and data from active duty military women, we hypothesized that Reserve and Guard veteran women who are mothers of dependent children would have different reintegration concerns than those who are not. Concerns and stressors unique to women veteran mothers that affect successful reintegration upon return from the war zone ultimately can impact women veterans' health. Although programs exist to try to reduce the burdens of reintegration, these programs have not seen wide use. This suggests that barriers prevent women from availing themselves of these programs, or that women veterans are unaware of these programs.
The overall objective of this pilot study was aimed at deepening our understanding of the concerns and stressors that accompany reintegration into civilian life for OIF/OEF Reserve and Guard women veterans who were or were not mothers of dependent children at deployment. Specifically, we wanted to gain insight into concerns and stressors pertaining to (a) reintegration issues related to family, (b) reintegration issues related to work, and (c) barriers to use of current services and how to improve these services.
We conducted three separate focus groups consisting of previously deployed OEF/OIF women veterans both with and without dependent children. Discussion guides for the focus groups were designed to specifically address a different area of concern in each focus group that could affect readjustment: family issues, work issues, and barriers to accessing currently available services. The three discussion guides were informed by anecdotal information and existing literature. We aimed to compose all 3 groups of women with and without dependent children during deployment so that reintegration issues could be compared for these two sub-groups. However, we were not able to do so for group 1. This group was conducted as an interview (using the original discussion guide) since only one veteran arrived for participation. Eight woman veterans participated in group 2 and five in group 3. All groups were audio taped and transcribed. A codebook was developed and used to code the narrative data from the transcripts from which several themes emerged.
Major themes related to family readjustment for women with and without children were: feeling isolated, having difficulties in communicating with family and friends, not having enough time to "readjust" when they returned home, and unreasonable expectations of family members for them to return to their former roles and "old selves". Issues pertaining uniquely to women with dependent children included difficulties bonding with children and resuming the role as primary parent or disciplinarian. Women felt out of sync with children and partners/family members and felt that they had "missed so much." Employment concerns were expressed equally by women with and without children and included financial issues either due to making less money as a civilian than while in the military or due to difficulty finding a civilian job that would pay as well as their military job. Some participants spoke about difficulties in money management after deployment because they had become used to military structure and routine where basic needs such as housing, food and clothing were taken care of. This lack of structure coupled with making less money created a number of financial tensions. Overall women had a hard time finding supports upon return home. Women in all three focus groups were vocal about the need for additional support from the military and VA to assist them with reintegration, and that the VA needed to "reach out" to them with supports after they return home. Reintegration barriers included insufficient pre-deployment planning for financial matters or custody arrangements for minor children. Family support groups and post-deployment briefings varied in quality and helpfulness.
Impressions drawn from the interview/focus groups regarding desired supports resulted in initiating a monthly two-hour readjustment/support group for women veterans facilitated by a WRIISC Social Worker and held in the early evening. Readjustment issues that will be addressed include: How to communicate with family members, employment issues (including resume building and interviewing tips), money management, and how to connect to community resources. The knowledge derived about women veterans who are/are not mothers has already resulted in providing these veterans with focused support to address their readjustment needs. The research results will provide further information for designing readjustment interventions that can address the concerns these women raised.
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