Methods: During the first phase of the project, audio-taped semi-structured interviews were conducted with OIF/OEF service-member parents of very young children and military spouses. Questions focused on deployment, coming home, changes in the service member, partner relationships, relationships with children, parenting, resources/supports, and advice for mental health professionals. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using grounded theory techniques (Charmaz, 2006). Two research assistants coded all transcripts using the QDA program Atlas.ti. They met regularly with senior investigators and a qualitative research consultant to assure consistent use of codes. Line-by-line codes were eventually condensed to broader categories and ultimately to larger themes utilizing clustered matrices (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
Findings: Findings illustrated how service member parents coped with challenges of the deployment cycle. Overarching themes included: 1) service member and spouse mental health status, including PTSD and depression; 2) perceived legacy of war-related experiences, including combat stress, for the service member and its impact on parenting; 3) recognizing and responding to young children's reactions to deployment separation; and 4) reintegration of the military parent. More specifically, service members discussed issues such as the mixed experience of phone, email, or webcam contact while deployed; the stress of returning to the parenting role after deployment as many families had reconfigured around the remaining spouse as the sole person in charge; and challenges such as depression and combat related stress as impediments to optimal parenting. Although active supports for military families have increased over the last few years, available programs did not meet all the needs of these families.
Conclusions and Implications: Our collaborative approach to building a program is intended to maximize consumer input regarding deployment-related experiences, interaction with existing systems of care, and family perceptions of need related to reintegration and the parenting of very young children. Findings from these interviews will assist in the development of a home-based program using best trauma informed social work and child development practices to address separation, reunion, and combat stress in the parenting process. Implications of building a consumer and evidence-informed family program for returning OIF/OEF service members with young children will be discussed.