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Written By: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin – Extension

Driving onto a military base is like driving into another world. You can’t get in without going through security. The base is a community unto itself with restaurants, banks, post office, stores, schools, day care centers, theatres, gyms, and much more. In fact, it’s possible for a military family to never go to local stores or use community resources because the base has everything they need. Military families also rely upon one another and function as a family since they share similar experiences and lives. The military culture builds on being part of a group and not an individual. The military mission or unit’s goals supersede individual goals. The military has its own language, rules, regulations and protocols that shape the service member and their families. They learn to discipline their words and actions, control their emotions and focus on what they need to accomplish. Let’s explore some caregiver issues/concerns where the military culture can create roadblocks.

Getting help can have multiple roadblocks for the caregiver including not knowing military terminology, especially if the caregiver is new to military life. Military language can be confusing and takes a while to understand. On top of that each military branch has terms specific for job title, position, location, services, time, resources plus moral codes (U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014, Kuehner, 2013). A caregiver must recognize and understand these new terms and acronyms so he/she can function in the military world while finding supports and services needed for his/her service member, themselves and other family members.

The service member’s commander can also be a road block for the service member getting help. The rank of a service member identifies who they report to and their responsibilities. Their commander is an unofficial member of the family. He/she is responsible for making sure the service member is trained, has the equipment they need, and monitors every aspect of the service member’s life. This includes making sure an ill or wounded service member is getting enough sleep, eating well, going to medical appointments and following the doctor’s orders. Problems emerge when the commander, caregiver and service member are not all working toward the same goals. If they aren’t truthful with each other, have unrealistic expectations or aren’t willing to work together then life will become more difficult especially for the caregiver. The caregiver is an unofficial member of the military so is affected by its culture often leading to stress.

The service member can create roadblocks. When a service member comes home from a war or conflict they are able to “hold it together” for a while but eventually many can no longer live with what they have experienced and would benefit from assistance. The service member may see getting help as a sign of losing control or being weak. The emphasis in the military on discipline and control is powerful. It implies that service members don’t show emotions, are strong and can handle anything. So, the thought of talking about what they have experienced, done, or seen and sharing these emotions is unacceptable. As a service member, they are in control of what they share when getting help and they have the power to make their life better by confronting what is hurting them. Caregivers can use power and control as motivation to help the service member.

Military Rules

Military rules sometimes get in the way of caregiving. One example is, when a service member does decide to seek help they are the only one who can make an appointment. A caregiver, commander, or unit buddy cannot make an appointment for the service member—only the service member can make such as appointment. Other rules about returning to the unit, medical discharge, financial compensation, and what caregivers are entitled to all create stress as the service member and caregiver move through their caregiver journey adjusting to a “new normal”.

A service member’s unit sometimes can be a road block to getting help. The service member may be in a unit that discourages getting help or if they do get help they are afraid their commander or other unit members will find out. When interviewing military caregivers, issues regarding the service member and his/her unit were always mentioned. Wives commented on how the service member wanted to be with their unit more than with his/her family. Military personnel are taught to bond with fellow brothers and sisters as they are the ones who will protect them in any situation. This bond is highly treasured, nurtured, and protected. Regardless of the situation their brothers and sisters will be there for each other and sometimes that is in life or death situations. The unit relationship influences the healing process. If there are positive relationships, unit members are invaluable to the caregiver and can be called upon to assist with caregiving tasks and responsibilities. If the service member does not have a good relationship with unit members additional issues can interfere affecting the service member’s healing process and the caregiver.

Core Values

Honor and integrity are the military’s core values which establish expectations, provide rules of conduct and dominate the service member’s life. When the soldier experiences conflict between their values, expectations and rules of conduct the healing process becomes more difficult. Caregivers can use military values as motivation to help the soldier. Take for example the value of personal courage. It takes courage to admit, confront and learn to manage a medical condition that is life altering. Or the value of loyalty can be used to help a solider seek help and move forward with their condition as they are loyal to themselves, their families and their unit. Military values need to be identified and discussed as to how they assist or hinder the soldier’s healing process and affect he caregiver.

Assistance for Professionals

Professionals who work with caregivers have an obligation to help military caregivers understand that caregiving is full of roadblocks, with the military being one. Helping military caregiver recognize military values is vital. They must learn the military’s terminology and realize they are living in a culture that has its own rules, regulations and expectations. The caregiver can appreciate that the military addressing is various roadblocks because past caregivers have been advocates for their service member and themselves. By talking and connecting with other caregivers they will be taking care of themselves. They will recognize that the emotions, feelings, and frustrations they feel are normal as they help their service member heal and together form a “new normal.”

To continue the conversation on military culture, join us next week for a three-day virtual conference on ‘Cultural Competency Awareness, Action, and Advocacy,’ starting September 18-29. Conference sessions will address topics such as privilege and power, race, equity, dis/ability, intersectionality, authentic dialog, sexual orientation, gender expression, and health disparities. To learn more or register for this FREE event go to: 2018 Virtual Conference.


Cole, R. F. (2014). Understanding military culture: A guide for Professional School counselors.

Halvorson, A. (2010). Understanding the Military: The Institution, the Culture, and the People.

Kuehner, C.A. (2013). My military: A Navy nurse practitioner’s perspective on military, culture, and joining forces for veteran health. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners,25,77-83.

Department of Veterans Affairs. (2014). Understanding military culture.