Spring Cleaning: Reflections on Common Interests in Civilian and Military Caregiving

Christopher Plein, Ph.D. West Virginia University and MFLN Caregiving Team Member

For much of our country, spring has been slow to emerge this year. However, the promise of warm weather also brings with it the expectation of some spring cleaning. Figuratively speaking, for me this means going back through notes and resources relating to military families and caregiving issues. In my research, a topic that emerges again and again is the notion that there is a divide between military and civilian culture. With an eye toward caregiving issues, I spent much of the winter looking at the literature on this topic. Let me share some observations and resources with you.

The idea that there is a divide between military personnel and the general civilian population goes back decades. It was first popularized in the late 1950s and tended to focus on political and ideological distinctions between military leaders and their civilian counterparts. In more recent times, the focus has been on apparent divides between rank and file military personnel and their families and the broader civilian world. These differences have become popularized through mass media and popular culture. Thomas Ricks’ “The Widening Gap between Military and Society” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1997 stands out as one of most visible and influential treatments of this topic. In the past 20 years or so, there has been no shortage of attention to this apparent divide. At their best, commentary and coverage have helped us to understand the unique challenges and pressures – as well as opportunities and rewards – of military service and life. At their worst, these portrayals perpetuate negative stereotypes of military personnel and families being disconnected from the mainstream of society.

We need to caution against these differences being overdrawn. While acknowledging and honoring distinction, we also need to understand the similarities and connections that exist between civilian and military life. For example, as noted in my last blog by looking at Department of Defense reports we found that approximately 80 percent of active duty military personnel are assigned within the continental United States (CONUS) and that almost three quarters of all active duty military families in the United States live off-installation. The implications of these statistics are obvious – there are close connections between military families and civilian communities.

Fortunately, there are researchers who are looking closely at the similarities and differences in military life. Their research provides a more nuanced and informed look at this important topic. For example, a short article by Rahbek-Clemmensen and his colleagues published in Armed Forces & Society in 2012 helps to map out some categories for comparison including those relating to cultural and demographic factors. A 2013 article by Kudler and Porter published in The Future of Children thoughtfully reviews some of the issues and needs relating to military children and call for civilian institutions, such as schools and clinics, to provide a community of care. An article published in Pediatrics in 2012, by Davis and her colleagues provides a brief yet comprehensive review issues and needs relating to military children’s healthcare and their connection to community-based services.

Much of the work that we do with the MFLN, be it in our Military Caregiving Concentration Area, or other concentration areas, is to offer programming that seeks to bridge those gaps that might exist between the military and civilian world; to acknowledge and honor genuine differences; and to find common interests to discover and create new approaches in caregiving support for all. As the warm weather approaches, please take some time to join us in our webinars, blogs, and podcasts.


This MFLN-Military Caregiving concentration blog post was published on April 20, 2018.

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