Study of Military Death on Surviving Family Members Concludes

A woman with her right hand on a coffin bends over in grief at a military funeral. Dr. Susan Myers touches the casket of her husband, Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, during his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Aug. 14, 2014. (Image credit: Defense Department)
 By Sharon Holland

Seven years after they began collecting data from family members of U.S. service members killed on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, federal scientists have now concluded the National Military Family Bereavement Study.

The study, conducted by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), is the largest scientific study of military death impact on surviving family members ever undertaken.

Led by Stephen J. Cozza, M.D., professor, USU Department of Psychiatry(PSY), and associate director, CSTS, the multi-disciplinary research team interviewed more than 2,200 adult survivors of deceased active duty service members from any cause to understand the grief and loss experiences, investigate the impact of community support and services on the bereaved, and to understand how available resources impact resilience or vulnerability in surviving families. “Survivors” include spouses/ex-spouses/adult partners, parents/step-parents/adoptive and custodial parents/in-loco parentis, siblings, and children/step-children (including adult children over the age of 18). Each completed questionnaires and participated in interviews and focus groups. They were also asked for saliva samples used to identify genes that might be associated with risk or resilience during the bereavement process.

An old man in a folding chair sits by a headstone in Arlington Cemetery
The 5-Year National Military Family Bereavement Study recently concluded. Study participants included parents, grandparents, siblings, children and spouses/partners of active duty service members who died from any cause since Sept. 11, 2001. (Image credit: Sharon Holland)

Of the 2,200 interviewed, the team followed 850 adults over a three-year period, and also followed 110 surviving children under the age of 18. The study built on the growing evidence addressing the intersection of grief and trauma and how it affects a military family member’s bereavement process, and needs for support and assistance. Preliminary findings suggest that the majority of these military bereaved family members are functioning well, despite the losses experienced. However, a significant minority endorse grief, depression, or post-traumatic symptoms that they describe as impairing, often many years after the death of their loved ones.

Since September 11, 2001, more than 16,000 active duty service members have died from a variety of causes, with slightly more than one-third attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For every service member who dies, many family members, including adults and children, are impacted.

“We all experience pain and a deep sense of loss when someone we love dies,” said Cozza. “There is no right or wrong way to grieve. In fact, grief never truly goes away. But, we hope that over time people who have experienced such painful losses can find happiness, a sense of purpose and connections in their lives.” Cozza believes that results from this large, longitudinal study will better guide policy, as well as community and clinical response in support of healthy grief outcomes.

a military funeral procession with a horse dran cart carry a flag draped coffin followed by military personnel in dress uniform
The funeral procession of Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene enters Arlington National Cemetery during a military funeral in Arlington, Va., Aug. 14, 2014. (Image credit: Defense Department)

The independent study included input from consultants and collaborators from a number of outside institutions, including Columbia University, Harvard University, UCLA, the University of Michigan, and Allegheny General Hospital. In addition, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., National Military Families Association (NMFA), Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC), American Association of Suicidology, American Widow Project, The Compassionate Friends, Military Families United, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), Travis Manion Foundation, Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors, Snowball Express, and the Army Survivor Outreach Services (S.O.S.) collaborated as principal community partners.