Soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines say they leave military service primarily because of the time they must spend away from their families, according to a national survey of more than 8,000 people, including active-duty service members, their spouses, veterans, and immediate family members.

The survey, conducted last April and May, found that time away from family – which has always been cited as a major factor for exiting military service – was the No. 1 reason for the first time since the annual survey was launched four years ago by Blue Star Families, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, and USAA.

Released this week, the 2017 Military Family Lifestyle Survey provides a snapshot of the state of military families and provides insight and data to help inform national leaders, local communities, and philanthropic efforts. The survey is sponsored by USAA, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Facebook, and Northrop Grumman.

“Time away from family” was the issue nearly half of all military spouse respondents to the survey ranked as their top concern about military life, just ahead of concerns about military spouse employment and military pay and benefits.

One-third of all military family respondents indicated having experienced at least 25 percent of the last 16 years away from their families. Forty percent reported experiencing more than six months of family separation in the last 18 months.

As Military City USA, San Antonio is home to the largest joint military base in the U.S. Department of Defense, comprised of JBSA Randolph, Fort Sam Houston, Camp Bullis, and Lackland Air Force Base. Nine percent of the region’s residents are associated with Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA), according to the 2015 San Antonio Military Economic Impact study. JBSA is the largest single employer in San Antonio and supports 250,000 retirees.

USAA, the San Antonio-based insurance and financial provider to the military, currently serves 12.3 million members worldwide.

“America has the greatest military made up of an all-volunteer force supported by wonderful military families that make tremendous sacrifices,” stated USAA’s John Bird in an announcement released Wednesday. Bird is a retired Navy vice admiral and current senior vice president of military affairs at USAA. “This survey emphasizes the responsibility we have to better support our military families and caregivers.”

The Blue Star Families organization was founded in 2009 with a mission to connect research and data to programs and solutions, including career development tools, local community events for families, and caregiver support.

The Institute for Veterans and Military Families, based at Syracuse University, focuses on the social, economic, education, and policy issues impacting veterans and their families post-service.

“The Department of Defense must do a better job of incorporating military families into its current thinking and future planning,” stated the report, identifying three areas that need better support: opportunity costs that accompany service, civilian community integration, and diverse experiences of service.

The survey also  found that service members and their families are experiencing substantial difficulties balancing work and family, with the report stating, “Many aspects of the military’s personnel and family support policies remain based on an outdated, draft-based military.”

The results of Blue Star Families 2017 Military Family Lifestyle Survey show that the top reason among those planning to exit service in the next two years is the impact of military service on their family.
The results of Blue Star Families 2017 Military Family Lifestyle Survey show that the top reason among those planning to exit service in the next two years is the impact of military service on their family. Credit: Courtesy / Blue Star Families

Blue Star families also cited military child education, impact of deployment on children, military family quality of life, change in retirement benefits, veteran employment, combat stress and traumatic brain injuries, and service member and veteran suicide as areas of concern.

The survey revealed that more than half of military families do not feel they belong in their local civilian communities, nor do they feel they are valued members of the local community. With 72 percent of military family respondents indicating they have lived in their current community for two years or less, a majority lacked adequate time to form community bonds on their own.

However, veterans reported that military service had many positive impacts on their lives. Most feel a sense of pride from their accomplishments during service and report having matured as a result.

Yet, concerns about the impact of military service on family life remains one of the top drivers for people exiting the service. With 2017 marking the 16th consecutive year the nation has been at war, service members are increasingly tasked with enduring multiple and prolonged military service assignments away from home and to other parts of the world.

Of the 22 percent who plan to transition out within the next two years, most said they were exiting to control retirement plans, 30 percent because of concerns about the effect of military service on family, and 25 percent because “the military lifestyle did not allow me sufficient time with my family.”

The “blue star” of Blue Star Service Families comes from the Blue Star Service banner designed and patented in 1917 by WWI Army Capt. Robert L. Queisser. Queisser’s two sons served on the front line.

The banner became the unofficial symbol for parents with a child in active military service.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.