Lessons Learned:

The Military Family

By Alex Purcell and Kyle Pritchard

In 2017, the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies received a grant from the Department of National Defence to host a forum on the past and present experiences of veterans in Canada. This forum entailed two conference panel presentations, a four-part podcast series and two “Lessons Learned” reports. The goal was to foster discussion about the historical experiences of veterans and how those might contribute to a better understanding of present-day issues, which, in turn, might help inform policymaking and offer solutions to the problems veterans currently face in Canada.

Four panelists were invited to present on the topic of military families at the Canadian Military History Conference in May 2018. They were subsequently interviewed, which was eventually turned into the last of two episodes of a four-part podcast series. The “Lessons Learned” report presented here reflects on the panel’s conference presentations and the two podcast episodes titled “Why Military Families Matter” (available here: part I and part II).

Host: Dr. Geoffrey Hayes, Associate Professor of History, University of Waterloo


  • Dr. Jessica Meyer, Associate Professor of History, University of Leeds
  • Dr. Deborah Norris, Associate Professor in Family Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University
  • Jody Mitic, Veteran
  • Kimberly Davis, Veteran Caregiver

The effects of military service linger beyond the battlefield. Many soldiers bring home the burdens of service––whether physically or mentally––and the toll it takes often extends beyond the individual to permeate family life. Spouses and children of these veterans endure unique struggles as members of the military family, watching their veteran-partner or -parent suffer from experiences in which they cannot relate. Feelings of helplessness may arise or, alternatively, significant resources, effort and time may be required to care for a veteran-family member. This brief article will summarize, analyze and expand upon the discussions held between academics, veterans and caregivers on the impact of military service on the family. The emphasis here is on the Canadian experience, yet it is important to acknowledge that these issues are not Canadian-specific. Examples from British and Australian contexts are used throughout to contextualize family care in a transnational frame. It will consider how the family operates within military culture, the burden of caregiving on spouses and children and the impact of intergenerational trauma on veterans and their families in its varying manifestations. Perspectives are given from a Canadian veteran, a military spouse and two scholars, giving a range of expertise that compare and contrast current and historical problems of veteran caregiving, the changes that have occurred, as well as the unfortunate continuities. In the conclusion, this report will provide three recommendations Veterans Affairs Canada should in order to better assist military families.

Military-Family Relations

The challenges of work-life balance are amplified by the demands of a career in the military. A soldier’s obligation is first to his service; family members must learn to adjust to taking “second place” in their loyalties, which can put a great deal of strain on familial relationships.[1] Other factors that impact military families include frequent mobility, separation from the service-member and fears that their loved ones being wounded or killed while on active duty––all of which create physical and emotional distance between soldiers/veterans and their families.[2] Deborah Norris notes how militaries assume family self-reliance, meaning military spouses who fail to uphold this appearance risk their families appearing vulnerable.

A significant aspect of military identity is unit cohesion. In the past, unit cohesion created support networks within military circles for soldiers’ families when loved ones were deployed. Permanent Military Quarters (PMQs), which were established to house military families after the Second World War and served as important locales for these supportive networks, entered into decline in the early 1990s. As they declined, existing local and federal programs did not supplement the informal support networks these communities provided for military families, compelling many to adopt domestic caregiving practices themselves. Families’ financial resources were consequently put under severe strain, as spouses were often forced out of employment to provide full-time care for ailing veterans. The creation of Military Family Resource Centres (MFRCs) during the same period were intended to assist military families transitioning away from PMQs, but their limited influence and the general lack of awareness of their existence means they continue to be underutilized by military families. The gendered expectations of soldiers––and especially men––to independently provide for their families has misconstrued the image of those who rely on support programs as broken or dysfunctional. To maintain appearances, many ignore these resources, often leading to an exacerbation of existing problems. Deborah Norris contends that though less stigma is attached to families seeking support within Canadian military culture, it still remains a hurdle for many to seek and receive care.

Caregiving Spouses and Children

Families are still considered a “major source of support and strength” for wounded and traumatized soldiers.[3] Kimberly Davis is a full-time, unpaid care provider for her veteran-husband, who worked as a naval chef when stationed in Bosnia during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s before later being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While Kim has embraced this role, as have many partners in similar situations, it makes the work no less challenging. Injuries can lead to the loss of a soldier’s identity, and their partners are forced to adjust by, in Davis’ words, “learn[ing] to love the [spouse] they know now.”[4] Depending on the severity of the Operational Stress Injury (OSI), spouses may have to focus a significant amount of their time towards caring for their partners. Alternatively, caregiving responsibilities sometimes falls on children to help their injured parent if the spouse is unable to provide such care. A study published in 2017 examining the familial relationships of several wives of British veterans found that spouses saw treatment as being strictly limited to the needs of treating PTSD, leaving little room for their personal struggles.[5] In many ways, these present-day issues are very similar to the ones that plagued families after the First World War. Jessica Meyer’s study on the wives of disabled British veterans of the First World War found that women struggled with loss of identity, financial and family instability, and the unpredictable nature of their husband’s mental health.[6] Comparing military families and veterans in the 1920s to those suffering now, despite increased research and support programs currently in place, their problems remain remarkably yet troublingly similar.

The Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research was created in 2010, which has provided increased aid to military families through publications on issues relevant to them.[7] Still, the majority of studies are conducted in and and focus on the US. More research needs to be done in the Canadian context to understand how the Canadian experience is both similar yet unique to the American example. The 2017 Canadian Defence Policy outlines new initiatives for military family support, which aim to address the social and emotional struggles of families as well as make programs more accessible to them.[8] But the Department of National Defense and Veterans Affairs Canada must collaborate and extend their support networks to include military families, as the experiences of disability and care extend beyond the ailing veteran to encompass military families.

Intergenerational Trauma

The vulnerable position of children in military families has become a growing point of concern for researchers. A 2015 Veterans Affairs Canada report on the impact of OSIs on the family found that children are more susceptible to various emotional and social problems and are at higher risk of being victims of neglect and abuse.[9] Kim Davis addresses this issue in the context of her own family, attributing her children’s vulnerability to the breakdown of the joint-parenting model, which is common in many military families. A 2016 study found only eleven programs available specifically to children of military families for support across Canada.[10] More services are required to inform and protect the over 64,000 Canadian children in military families from the unique dangers they face.[11] This includes what can be referred to as “intergenerational trauma,” as children inherit the effects of their parent’s trauma. Some family members have expressed concern that their children are “paying a price for their parent’s service to the nation.”[12] These concerns confirm one historian’s assertion of “war wounds as family wounds,” and that a soldier’s trauma goes beyond an individual’s experience.[13]


There are thousands of military families in Canada struggling without proper support. While research about the problems they face and the availability of programs directed at alleviating them has increased in recent years, the same issues that veterans’ families encountered after the First World War continue to affect military families today. Debilitating disabilities dominate not only veterans’ lives but the collective lives of families too. The result is that both spouses and children of veterans are often forgotten or left neglected, without support or proper guidance and prone to suffering breakdown or trauma themselves.

Current programs for veteran support do not offer the extent of support many families require, and while the government and military are adapting to meet these needs, much Canadian-based and -directed research needs to be done to determine the correct approach to assist military families. To this end, this study proposes three recommendations for Veterans Affairs to better support military families. First, it is advised that Veterans Affairs consult with advocates in future policy-making. It should also consider evaluating veterans’ needs based on family circumstances, not just an individual’s. Lastly, the greatest difficulty for military families is ensuring they are knowledgeable of and have access to support programs available to them. Allocating funds to improve awareness during and after service would help alleviate some of the pressure military families experience today. Despite these pressures, Canadian veterans and their families continue to rely on each other for support and to push the conversation about what they have experienced to improve the conditions for future families and service members.


Aiken, Alice B. and Stéphanie A.H. Bélanger. “New Perspectives in Military, Veteran and Family Health.” Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 2, no. 1 (April 2016): 1.

Canada. Department of National Defence. Strong Secure Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy. [Ottawa]. 2017. http://dgpaapp.forces.gc.ca/en/canada-defence-policy/docs/canada-defence-policy-report.pdf.

Cramm, Heidi, Deborah Norris, Linna Tam-Seto, Maya Eichler and Kimberley Smith-Evans. “Making Military Families in Canada a Research Priority.” Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 1, no. 2 (2015): 8–12.

Larsson, Marina. Shattered Anzacs: Living With the Scars of War. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009.

Meyer, Jessica. “‘Not Septimus Now’: Wives of Disabled Veterans and Cultural Memory of the First World War in Britain.” Women’s History Review 13, no. 1 (2004): 117–38.

Murphy, Dominic, Emily Palmer, Kate Hill, Rachel Ashwick, and Walter Busuttil. “Living Alongside Military PTSD: A Qualitative Study of Female Partners’ Experiences with UK Veterans.” Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 3, no. 1 (2017): 52–61.

Norris, Deborah. “Working Them Out… Working Them In: Ideology and the Everyday Lives of Female Military Partners Experiencing the Cycle of Deployment.” Atlantis 26, no. 1 (2001): 55–64.

Tam-Seto, Linna, Heidi Cramm, Deborah Norris, Maya Eichler and Kimberley Smith-Evans. “An Environmental Scan of Programs and Services for Families of Veterans with Operational Stress Injuries.” Military Behavioural Health 4, no. 4 (2016): 390–7.

“Why Military Families Matter, Pt. 2.” On War and Society. Podcast Audio. Forthcoming November 30, 2018, http://canadianmilitaryhistory.ca/on-war-society-why-military-families-matter-part-ii/.


[1] Deborah Norris, “Working Them Out… Working Them In: Ideology and the Everyday Lives of Female Military Partners Experiencing the Cycle of Deployment,” Atlantis 26, 1 (2001): 57.

[2] Linna Tam-Seto et al., “An Environmental Scan of Programs and Services for Families of Veterans with Operational Stress Injuries,” Military Behavioural Health 4, no. 4 (2016): 390; Heidi Cramm et al., “Making Military Families in Canada a Research Priority,” Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 1, no. 2 (2015): 8.

[3] Canada. Department of National Defence, Strong Secure Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy. [Ottawa]. 2017, 28, http://dgpaapp.forces.gc.ca/en/canada-defence-policy/docs/canada-defence-policy-report.pdf.

[4] “Why Military Families Matter, Pt. 2,” On War and Society, Podcast Audio, forthcoming November 30, 2018, http://canadianmilitaryhistory.ca/on-war-society-why-military-families-matter-part-ii/.

[5] Dominic Murphy et al., “Living Alongside Military PTSD: A Qualitative Study of Female Partners’ Experiences with UK Veterans,” Journal of Military, Veterans and Family Health 3, no. 1 (2017): 58–9.

[6] Jessica Meyer, “‘Not Septimus Now’: Wives of Disabled Veterans and Cultural Memory of the First World War in Britain,” Women’s History Review 13, no. 1 (2004): 117–38.

[7] Alice B. Aiken and Stephanie A.H. Belanger, “New Perspectives in Military, Veteran and Family Health,” Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 2, no. 1 (April 2016): 1.

[8] Department of National Defence, Canada’s Defence Policy, 29.

[9] Cramm et al., “Making Military Families in Canada a Research Priority,” 9.

[10] Tam-Seto, “An Environmental Scan,” 393.

[11] Cramm et al, “Making Military Families in Canada,” 9.

[12] Ibid, 8.

[13] Marina Larsson, Shattered Anzacs: Living With the Scars of War (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009).