Two-thirds of military teens say they plan to serve in the military in the future, according to the results of an online survey being released today.
That finding was surprising to the military teens and family advocates alike who worked together to compose the survey and field it online for two weeks in May. Some 2,116 military teens ages 13 to 19 participated in the survey, which provides a rare, recent window into the experiences of military teens.
While the number of those who want to follow the family tradition of serving may be a good sign, there were also troubling findings. “The kids are not okay,” wrote the researchers in this survey, conducted by Bloom: Empowering the Military Teen, and the National Military Family Association. Among other things, 42 percent of teens showed signs of emotional distress; one-third of teens experienced food insecurity; and 11 percent experienced domestic abuse or violence in their homes.
In general over the years, a number of military children have followed in their parents’ footsteps, but there have been indications those trends were waning, with some surveys finding that military parents are increasingly unlikely to recommend service to their children. And these teens were all born in a time of wartime deployments, in post-9/11 years. The finding that 65 percent want to serve in the military is in stark contrast to a 2019 Defense Department poll indicating that 13 percent of Americans in the general population ages 16 to 24 are likely to serve in the military.
The high number of military teens who want to serve in the military is stunning, said 17-year-old Elena Ashburn, co-founder of Bloom with her 17-year-old friend Matthew Oh. Bloom is an online platform and community for military teens, with content provided by military teens. They were approached by the National Military Family Association to work together to amplify the voice of teens, Matthew said, and the work led to the survey. Elena, who turns 18 Oct. 9, lives in Florida, and Matthew lives in South Korea. Both are Army children, and are high school seniors.
Elena and Matthew, as well as advocates at NMFA, feel that military teens’ voices are not being heard.
“No one is looking at this population. No one is paying attention to these teens,” said NMFA’s Crystal Lewis, director of research and insights for the nonprofit. Most of the teens who responded to the survey are active-duty kids or have lived the active-duty lifestyle, “where they are frequently relocating geographically, making new friends, changing schools, all of those challenges, on top of those standard challenges of being a teenager,” Lewis said.
“A common misconception even among the military is that for kids, military life gets easier,” said Matthew. In some ways that may be true, he said, but when it comes to leaving friends and schools, “I feel like it gets harder because you become emotionally aware of what’s happening. You feel deeper connections with people that you then have to leave.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention building bonds and relationships with adults and friends, and helping teens feel connected to their schools and community can help protect adolescents from poor mental health.
And, these researchers add, the military lifestyle doesn’t foster that connectedness.
While the finding of low mental well-being among teens wasn’t surprising to Elena, those 65 percent of military teens who intend to join the military is a “shocking” finding, she said.
“The military is becoming sort of a family business,” Elena said. “If we want to ensure these military teens are able to serve, then we need to make sure we have adequate mental health support for them as teenagers. It’s really sad to me that the future of our force is suffering a lot with something that, if we invested money into it, had more programs, could be significantly changed and made better.”
Bloom is hoping to help military teens make the best of their military lifestyle. “Matthew and I talk about how hard military life is, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything. For every bad thing, there are seven great things,” Elena said.
Of those who responded to the NMFA + Bloom Military Teen Survey, 41 percent are in current active-duty families; 27 percent are children in National Guard families; 13 percent in Reserve families, 11 percent in retired families, and 7 percent in veteran families.
Across the survey participants, 58 percent were from enlisted families; 35 percent were from officer families; and 7 percent were unsure.
Among the findings:
*Military teens’ mental wellbeing is low, with 42 percent of respondents showing signs of emotional distress. By comparison, according to the CDC, about 37 percent of high school students in the general population experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019. Only 13 percent of military teen respondents indicated a high level of mental wellbeing, based on the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale, a seven-item scale used to measure well-being and psychological functioning. About 45 percent of the survey participants reported only moderate mental well-being, which is still categorized as being at risk, researchers stated.
*Of no surprise to military families, the survey showed that military teens who reported experiencing more deployments or separations lasting three months or longer generally reported lower mental well-being. And in this survey of teens who have grown up in post-9/11 wars, 45 percent reported their family had gone through between one and four deployments that were three months or longer; nearly 8 percent between five and seven deployments; 6 percent between eight and 10. There were 15 teens who said they’ve gone through 19 or more such deployments as a military family.
*Like many military children, these teens have experienced their share of moves, uprooted from their schools and neighborhoods. Of these teens, 62 percent said they had made between one and five military moves; 18 percent have made six to 10 moves; and 7 percent moved 11 or more times.
*36 percent of survey participants said they had experienced food insecurity within the past year, based on the USDA Food Security Survey for Youth Ages 12 & Older. Among the teens in active-duty families, 29.5 percent reported food insecurity, or about 262 teens out of the approximately 890 teens in active-duty families who participated in the survey, Lewis said. Of the overall survey participants, 28 percent said they had “sometimes” experienced food insecurity; and nearly 8 percent said they had “often” experienced food insecurity. The researchers cited research from the Department of Agriculture noting that 10.5 percent of families in the general population were food insecure in 2020. The nonprofit Feeding America predicts a level of food insecurity for as many as one in six American children in 2021. “Military families are not immune from the pressures facing the nation as a whole,” the military teen report stated.
*11 percent reported they had experienced domestic abuse or violence in their homes; with 5 percent saying they had experienced child abuse and 5 percent experiencing dating violence; 17 percent selected multiple answers to the question about personal experiences with violence. The majority — 57 percent — experienced none of this violence. According to the CDC, 61 percent of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced or witnessed at least one type of adverse childhood event — such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect or witnessing violence in the home or community — in their years up to age 17, and nearly one in six reported they had experienced four or more types of adverse childhood events.
*20 percent of the teens said they’ve been treated differently or have been made fun of because they were military kids.
There were 15 questions, as researchers wanted to keep the survey to five minutes or less, to encourage participation, said NMFA’s Lewis. While 4,000 people started the survey, about 3,000 completed it. About 1,000 of the participants were military parents trying to complete the survey for their teens. Their responses were not used, Lewis said.
Connectedness is a key issue, which is what Bloom is working toward on a worldwide level. But there needs to be a better sense of community on bases among teens, Elena said. Teens need to talk with others about what’s going on in their lives, she said.
“Knowing you’re not alone in your struggles is helpful. So many other people have been going through it too, and they might have ways and methods to help you cope with it. It could be incredibly helpful. That’s what we try to do at Bloom.”
The online survey is not a random scientific sampling, and these online surveys of the military community have become more common among a number of military nonprofits. Surveys sponsored by DoD provide the scientific sampling, as they have access to contact information of service members and spouses.
Decades ago, DoD surveyed military youth on a periodic basis, and compared them to the general population of youth. Over the years DoD and the services have worked to provide programs for military teens, with a variety of programs through youth services such as Boys & Girls Clubs of America; and schools have programs such as the Military Child Education Coalition’s Student 2 Student to help ease the transition for military kids. And through the Interstate Compact for the Education of Military Children, states have been addressing education transition issues for military children.
Lewis said NMFA will look at steps to take to “nurture this population that’s been swept under the rug,” such as expanding its Operation Purple Camps to include some teen-only camps. “We’re not just going to sit back and say this is a problem,” she said.
Matthew said Bloom is also working with NMFA on ways to educate adults who interact with military teens, such as teachers, coaches, community leaders to help them understand the issues, such as difficulties making transitions from one location to another. There are different struggles in different locations, he said.
“Including military teens in these conversations is important,” he said. “We’re more than happy to talk and share our experience. MFA listened to us.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.