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Five Things to Know about Military Families with Linda Sanford


Note: I adore Linda Sanford. She is also the author of one of my favorite books, Strong at the Broken Places: Overcoming the Trauma of Child Abuse which came out in 1991. So when I heard she was speaking at a local event hosted by The Riverside Trauma Center, about military families I had to go. I had not considered the stress faced by military families, many of who are also parenting with ACEs, as well.

“There are five things I want you to know about military families,” said Linda Sanford. She is a licensed social worker, Visiting Professor of Trauma-Informed Social Work at Wheelock College and the other of several books of non-fiction.


She has worked with children with parents were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. She’s provided clinical support to active duty military and their families while deployed on Marine Corps Air Station at Iwakuni, Japan. 

Five Things to Know about Military Families 

1. “The first is that everyone serves.”

She spoke of how narrowly we consider who is a military family. She said so many of us are affected when there are 2 million “boots on the ground,” not only parents and spouses of those serving but friends, in-laws, co-workers, neighbors and even beloved girlfriends and boyfriends of those deployed and re-adjusting to civilian life.

She mentioned the 13,000 civilian children in Massachusetts who are children of National Guardsmen who went to Iraq and Afghanistan. "We might not know that a community member served and we are less likely to know who their children are," she said.

2. "All Types of Service Count."

“The impact of service goes far,” she said. Many will say, “I’m o.k., I didn’t see combat,” with eyes cast down and who are clearly traumatized. But combat is not the only thing difficult about service.

She said that for every one person in service combat eight service members back them up. She insisted that all roles matter. She stressed that being in conflict or combat can be traumatic other parts of military life can be stressful, dangerous and traumatic as well. Too often the role of all but those who see combat can be minimized.

She talked about those who provide disaster relief after a natural disaster, who get injured and lose their lives. She spoke of those on Peace Keeping posts in Bosnia and other places. She spoke about a father she spoke to who, upon return to base told her, "I saw some shit over there I never saw, worse than Afghanistan.” Often, even those in the military are unprepared for what they face.

There are family members who lose their loved ones and get the “Gold Star” to signify service, grief, and sacrifice, she said.

She also mentioned sexual assault, not only Military Sexual Assault that happens to soldiers as a form of primary trauma but also the secondary trauma experienced by those who know about sexual violence and can’t prevent, intervene or even respond. which can happen during peacekeeping missions where the rules of engagement prevent intervention.

“The military is a dangerous place to work,” she said. The danger extends to family members as well as soldiers. She spoke about interpersonal violence, the sexual assault and domestic violence that occurs on bases. She stressed though that these threats to safety, health, and well-being exist for many families on and off bases and are not unique to military families.

3. "Living in the garrison is both good and bad."

She spoke of the benefits of being on base, the closeness, community, and the bonds. But she said you may share barracks, at night, in your personal life that you have spent an entire work day with – which can be trying.
Also, on a base, anyone with a higher rank is a boss and the dynamics are quite different than in civilian life.

She also spoke about some statistics about what differentiates military and civilian families, such as that they marry younger (average age is 19), have more children (4 and ½), and a higher divorce rate (70%).

4. "Military life is about attachment and loss, attachment and loss."

She talked about how a child with a parent in the military moves every three years which might mean a childhood with six or seven complete relocations. The regular moves are in addition to the changes, transitions, and adjustments faced during pre and post deployments.

5. "Take a stance on cultural humility."

She says she doesn’t believe in “cultural competence” but “cultural humility” instead. She said as a Jew she does not know all there is to know about Judaism. She doesn't even know everything about her culture and doesn't assume she can know about the culture of others. Instead, she said it’s important to find culture brokers. Culture brokers, she said, should be listened to and learned from for they speak with the authority of experience. To her, having cultural humility is preferable to attempting “cultural competence."

Stanford herself is a culture broker has lived and worked on bases and with military families. She knows about trauma caused by adversity that happens in childhood, adult life or both.

I can't wait to learn what she's going to speak about next. 

Sanford was one of three speakers who presented at a half-day workshop entitled, The Long Journey Home: The Experience of Veterans Returning from Vietnam to Post-9/11 Wars. The two other presenters, Gabriel Nutter and Thomas Hannon, spoke about the experiences of veterans returning home. Gabriel Nutter is the Regional Team Leader for the Statewide Advocacy for Veterans’ Empowerment (SAVE Team), a peer-to-peer veterans outreach program of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. Thomas Hannon is the former director of the Vet Center, Boston and is now a consultant to the SAVE Team. Hannon was a Navy corpsman in Vietnam and awarded the Purple Heart. Highlights from their talks will appear in a future post.


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