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Research on Military/Veteran Families

Executive Summary

Citation: MacLean M, Campbell L, Macintosh S, Lee J and Pedlar D. Research on Military/Veteran Families. Research Directorate, Veterans Affairs Canada, Charlottetown. December 14, 2015: p.37.


Research on families of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and Veterans is important given the role families play in supporting serving members and Veterans and the potential impacts military service can have on families. CAF recognizes the importance of families in supporting serving members in their mission, their satisfaction with military service and retention in the military. The mission of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) is “to provide exemplary, client-centred services and benefits that respond to the needs of Veterans, other clients and their families, in recognition of their services to Canada; and to keep the memory of their achievements and sacrifices alive for all Canadians.”

Recognizing the lack of research on Veteran families in Canada, the VAC Research Directorate undertook a series of consultations (Ogden and Lockhart, 2011) with more than 75 VAC staff and external experts to help set priorities for research related to family issues. Participants identified more than 25 research questions for possible investigation (see Appendix A for details). These questions fall into four main areas: the impacts of military service, the needs of Veteran families, protective or success factors, and effective interventions.


This study has two objectives: 1) to inform the VAC Family Strategy, currently being developed; and 2) to inform further research on families and in particular the Life After Service Studies (LASS).


The report is divided into three sections. The first examines the demographic composition of CAF military and Veteran families, the second section reviews more than 20 studies related to military and Veteran families conducted in Canada, and the third section reviews nine broader international military and Veteran population health studies focusing on families. Appendix A lists recommendations resulting from a few key studies while Appendix B outlines family well-being measures used in surveys.


The majority of both CAF members and Veterans are married or have a partner and many have children under 18, with the composition of military/Veteran families reflecting their differing stages in life. Family relationships were found to be important to the well-being and life satisfaction of CAF members. With respect to Veterans, families were found to be particularly important for those suffering from service-related conditions. Low levels of social support and low income were found to be associated with difficult adjustment to civilian life.

A growing body of research has been focusing on a number of particular areas and revealing findings with respect to the impacts of deployments, service-related conditions and military service in general on families. For example, it was found that geographic moves and caring for members or Veterans with service-related conditions have negative impacts on spouses and/or children. The bulk of this work has focused on the families of serving personnel. Much less work has been conducted on Veteran families.

Canadian research has found the impacts of service-related conditions and military service in general on families include divorce, financial insecurity, stress, low life satisfaction, mental health problems, child behavioural issues, spousal career sacrifices, and lower spousal income. Recent research has focused on the role of interventions aimed at improving family resilience in mitigating the impacts of service-related conditions and military service in general. Little research has been done in Canada on Veteran families, although higher divorce rates were found among those released prior to 2003 and among those more recently released rates of difficult adjustment to civilian life were higher among those with low social support and low family income.

The reviewed international population health studies included findings on the impacts of deployments among the families of both serving members and Veterans, geographical moves on the children of serving members and caregiving on families of members and Veterans. A UK study found lower employment rates among Veteran spouses compared to the general population. Two Australian studies on the impacts of deployments had mixed findings. One on Vietnam Veterans found negative impacts related to deployment and the other on the more recent Timor-Leste deployment found no difference between those deployed and the era control group. However two additional studies on the impacts of deployment on families, one from the US and the other from the UK, have yet to be released.

The results of this literature review have implications for VAC’s Family Strategy, currently being developed. The strategy will focus on transition from military to civilian life and challenges faced by Veteran families (especially of ill and injured Veterans) and detailing VAC’s approach to address the needs of these families. The findings have shown that families are critical to the well-being of Veterans with service-related conditions, and that one of the challenges faced by families is supporting those Veterans. Research on Canadian Veterans and their caregivers identified gaps in supports, so this may be a good starting point for the Family Strategy. In terms of transition to civilian life, while the evidence points to important dimensions that could be addressed through a Family Strategy, further research is needed to identify target populations for supports and effective interventions. Lastly, the Department may need to examine its possible role in mitigating the general impacts of military service on families, such as in the areas of low income and spousal employment.

A few international population health family studies have been completed or are currently in progress. However, much of the research in Canada has been on specific topic areas (e.g., impacts on spousal employment) or on specific sub-groups of the family population, such as families of Veterans with service-related conditions. Little is known about both the positive and negative outcomes after military service for a broad range of families. The Department should explore adding family-related content to the Veteran survey component and determine what additional information may be available on families via the Income Study component or through other types of record linkage studies. In the absence of a dedicated population-based study, qualitative research focusing on family members would provide valuable insights into the challenges they face and factors for success.


Important as they are to the well-being of military members and Veterans, families can face challenges. For example, one area in which families are clearly challenged is in supporting Veterans with service-related conditions. Despite the growing body of research in this area, knowledge gaps remain. For example, little is known about both the positive and negative impacts for a broad range of families. Qualitative research could explore these impacts, thereby informing both the Family Strategy and further cycles of LASS. Collecting more information on families within the Veteran survey as well as the Income Study or other record linkage studies should be explored.


The authors would like to thank Sanela Dursun, Director Research, Personnel & Family Research, DGMPRA, DND for her help with the statistics on family demographics of members, Alain Poirier and Kris McKinnon, Research Directorate, VAC with their help gathering the same statistics for Veteran and Linda Van Til, Wendy Lockhart and Jacinta Keough, Research Directorate, VAC for reviewing this report.

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