For many, imagining life in the United States Armed Forces might conjure Cold War–era thoughts of military bases dotting the globe, populated by young males. But today, some 65 to 70% of service members live outside of a military installation, many of them older and with families of their own. The demands of military life—frequent relocations, inflexible working hours and deployments—mean that most active-duty military families struggle to feel a sense of belonging in civilian communities.
A 2019 study by Blue Star Families found that over one-third of respondents “have no one in their local civilian community whom they know well enough to ask for a favor.”
With the experience of belonging being so strongly associated with mental health, this lack of connection creates a major challenge for military families. The size of the challenge is significant. The U.S. counts more than two million active duty personnel and reservists; spouses, children, other family members, and community make up many more millions of people directly affected by military service.
When there’s stress on one service member’s family, it can jeopardize mission-readiness for their unit and the military as a whole.
“It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve your country,” says Blue Star Families CEO Kathy Roth-Douquet, “but no one’s going to do it if it hurts their family.” Roth-Douquet believes there are ways to make life for military families much better, and by doing so “we can continue to have the strongest, most ready military in the world.”
Roth-Douquet didn’t grow up in a military family. But when she married a service member she saw a disconnect between her new military community and the civilian world she came from. Her civilian friends and colleagues weren’t unsympathetic, but they didn’t know the strengths of military communities, or their challenges. So in 2009 Roth-Douquet partnered with others from different branches of military service to start Blue Star Families. Their initial goal was simple: tell their story and find people who were willing to help make a difference.
“I wanted to give people like me a place to unite through our unique situations, and advocate for our families and our community,” says Roth-Douquet. An annual survey helped the organization “ask, listen, and learn from military-connected individuals.” Knowing more about what military families were experiencing helped Blue Star to connect them with resources.
A person you can turn to
Frequent moves to new locations can be a challenge for even the most outgoing, social people. Roth-Douquet points out that, “when people move again and again, and they’re moving next to a neighbor who might not know they’re there, if you don’t have someone you can turn to when you need help, problems get worse.”
When Army-spouse Brandi Lasater moved to San Diego, she found that most of the military families around her were connected to the Marine Corps. Differences between the branches of military service didn’t make it any easier to start new friendships. But it was in San Diego that Lasater found Coffee Connect, a partnership between Blue Star Families and Starbucks to bring military families together and connect them with their community. Lasater would come to appreciate Coffee Connect events even more after her and her husband’s next relocation to New York.
Someone to talk to for moral support can be critical for military spouses. According to the 2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 52% of respondents found friends to be most helpful during a “separation from their service member.”
“This last move was probably one of my hardest,” says Brittney Allen, a veteran whose husband is on active duty. “I have friends in Germany, Italy, Korea in Georgia, Florida, you know, I can probably pick a friend in each of the 50 states.” But when Allen came to her last duty station in New York, she struggled to find someone to help her navigate the new location.
Allen heard about Blue Star Families through a long-time, now long-distance friend. Despite some initial hesitance, Allen did some research and was won over by Blue Star Families’ mission of building communities. She turned to her local Blue Star Families Chapter to get plugged in by attending a Coffee Connect.” That’s where she met Brandi Lasater, just a few days after Lasater herself had arrived in New York.
“Little did I know that day was going to be life-changing for me,” Allen says of meeting Lasater. “Next thing you know, we’re running 5Ks, we’re going to brunch, we’re going to yoga, and you know, the rest is history.”
Allen’s mood improved. She felt less isolated. She says that building friendships has helped her help people around her. “By having those connections, that relationship, within Blue Star Families, it also helps benefit and support my community.”
As Lasater puts it, “it’s not just about military spouses supporting each other. It’s ‘Hey neighbor, you know, did you know that you have military in your neighborhood and in your community, and this is how you can help make them a part of your community.”
Stories like these are the highlights of a major push by Blue Star Families to support. “In 2018, Blue Star Families took an important step to address the issue of belonging and its impacts on military families by building funded Blue Star Families chapters across the country,” said Roth-Douquet. “The efforts started with pilot programs in New York and San Diego where we were able to hire staff tasked with a specific and measurable social impact goal: improve military families’ sense of belonging to their local communities.”
Blue Star Families’ local Chapters help military families quickly connect to a support network within their new community. Roth-Douquet says that their programming is revealing the mental and emotional rewards that come from stronger connections to the broader civilian community. “Our Connected Communities Impact Study has found that our Chapter model works to provide the building blocks toward belonging and to produce positive mental health outcomes.”
The support nurtured by Blue Star Families’ chapters brings peace of mind, even for military families living on bases. Army reservist Tennille Jones lives on Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, California, with her mother and her son Joshua. Jones’s mother has been “my biggest supporter since day one,” and Joshua affectionately describes Jones as his mom and best friend. Even with all the strength she receives from her family, Jones was able to find a sense of belonging in her local Blue Star Families chapter.
“I’ve told people that Blue Star is basically another service for the military to get to know one another, to get people connected,” says Jones. Building that social network for her son is important, so she knows he has a strong community of support when she’s away for training or a deployment.
Jones found Blue Star Families through Facebook and connected with Maggie Meza, the organization’s San Diego chapter director. From there, Jones signed up for a social event as a way for her son to meet other military kids. “It was our very first Blue Star Families event, and my son was blessed with a skateboard,” she said. “Since then, we have attended many events, including virtual parks events and virtual trivia events, during the pandemic.” These events have helped families like Jones’s meet and connect with other military and civilian families.
Blue Star Families has been tracking how events, like ones Jones has participated in, are keeping people in touch with each other. Meza points out that The Connected Communities Impact Study “found that at least half of respondents who attended at least one Blue Star Families event in the previous three months had met and kept in contact with at least one person from the event.”
In just over a decade Blue Star has grown to 11 chapters serving more than 1.5 million military families. In addition to invaluable connections over coffee and moral support, the organization has facilitated over 800,000 museum visits, 250,000+ book donations, and provided resources that helped military spouses earn more than 55 million dollars in income. And Blue Star Families is still growing.
“When we’re everywhere,” says Kathy Roth-Douquet, “then wherever you go, you can know that there is a group with arms welcome to catch you.”