A recent survey of military-connected teens reveals that they have been struggling during the pandemic due to 18 months of lockdowns coupled with the added stressors of moving to new communities, school transitions and deployments.
The Military Teen Experience Report, conducted by National Military Family Association (NMFA) and founders of the website Bloom, polled more than 2,100 military teenagers between the ages of 13-19. They came from both officer and enlisted families and a balanced mix of active-duty, reserve, Guard, veteran and retired.
Participants answered questions about mental health/well-being, deployments, food insecurity, abuse and generational military service. The results highlight the deepening struggle military teens are experiencing today.
Besa Pinchotti, NMFA’s executive director, says reaching military families is part of its core mission, but teen voices often go unheard.
“Reaching adults is easy; reaching military teens is a challenge,” she said.
More than 40% surveyed said they were experiencing low mental well-being, but the majority (45%) felt moderate feelings of well-being. The survey summary states:
“In our research, mental well-being and number of deployments or separations from a military parent were statistically significantly related to each other. Military teens who reported experiencing more deployments or separations lasting three months or longer generally reported lower mental well-being.”
One teen respondent described a difficult aspect of his/her life.
“Loss. Not death, but having everyone around you constantly disappear. Adjusting to a new school is tolerable, but losing those close to you hurts like hell.”
Matthew Oh and Elena Ashburn, the military teen founders of Bloom, say they hope the survey amplifies voices.
“The COVID health crisis and pandemic restrictions have made it difficult for us to connect and thrive. Our survey supports this,” said Oh.
Aside from inquiring about the mental health of military teens, the survey also asked about family legacy and military service. A surprising 64% of military teens said they plan to serve in the military as an adult, an overwhelming majority of respondents. The survey’s summary compares these statistics to a 2019 Department of Defense poll of American youth that found only 13% of Americans ages 16-24 had an interest in military service.
“We are the future. We are the military leaders of tomorrow. And from what this survey says, we are not ok,” said Ashburn. “We need adults to listen to us, hear our story, support us.”
Bloom and NMFA also wanted to know if military families have struggled to put food on the table through the pandemic. Nearly 36% of teens said they were concerned that they would run out of food before their families had money to buy groceries, and 28% said they were sometimes concerned. The answers weren’t surprising for Besa at NMFA.
“We work on this day in and day out,” she said. “Military families are worried about food, we know this. We are working to add provisions to the National Defense Authorization Act to support our families.”
She points to a recent 2021 NMFA study which says 14% of 11,000 military families surveyed visited charitable food distribution sites to make ends meet.
NMFA has designed programs geared for military youth in their popular Operation Purple Camp and will continue to push for policies that protect those who protect us and their families. They are lobbying for changes to SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) and their ties to Basic Housing Allowance so military families can qualify for SNAP. They are also lobbying for a Basic Needs Allowance for military families who are financially struggling, especially those who are stationed in areas with a high cost of living.
Together, NMFA and Bloom plan on publishing a Field Guide for Military Teens — resources for teens and the adults who support them — in spring 2022.
Besa stresses that “Military teens of today are the future force of tomorrow. We need to support them now with meaningful policies and programs. That’s what NMFA is focused on.”