The largest and longest-running health research in military history will soon embark on a study of military-connected adolescents.

As the school year begins in the fall, researchers will contact about 50,000 adult participants, already involved in the Millennium Cohort Study, who are parents of children between the ages of 11–17, according to Hope McMaster, principal investigator of the study.

The Study of Adolescent Resilience, or SOAR, aims to capture the experiences of military-connected adolescents and their parents, to help inform the services provided by military family readiness programs, she said.

Researchers will explore how military-related experiences are associated with adolescents’ psychosocial adjustment and physical health, academic achievement, and educational and career aspirations, McMaster said. They’ll also look at how parenting behaviors, the quality of the parent-adolescent relationship and parents’ marital quality influence adolescents.

“After almost 20 years of sustained warfare and the COVID-19 pandemic, we need robust research approaches that can address complex emerging issues among military-connected adolescents and their families,” said McMaster, who describes it as a “landmark study.”

Active duty, Reserve, National Guard service member and veteran parents will be invited to participate in the study through postal mailings and emails with links to the survey. Once a parent confirms eligibility and consents for their child to participate, they’ll be asked to provide contact information for the child, as well as the other primary parent, if applicable.

“Summary results from this study will be provided directly to those who oversee policies, programs and services for military youth and their families,” McMaster said.

This is longitudinal research, which means the adolescents will be followed over time, like their parents who have been participating in the generational Millennium Cohort Study.

The study is designed for follow-up with the adolescents in 18-month intervals, McMaster said, and officials will pursue funding for those follow-ups and to add new panels of adolescents as the years go on.

SOAR also will include underrepresented groups, like single parents and dual-military couples, McMaster said.

“There is virtually no information on adolescents in these understudied groups,” she said.

The congressionally-mandated Millennium Cohort Study recruits new panels of service members every few years, and follows them as they continue in their careers and after they leave the military.

The study will continue through 2068.

The data is strictly confidential, and only summary results, with no identifying information, are shared. That applies with the adolescent study, too — and even parents won’t have access to their child’s survey information.

“We will protect their privacy,” McMaster said.

The adolescent study is currently funded by the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, she said.

The Millennium Cohort Study research team is headquartered at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.

What’s going on with military teens?

Longitudinal research “is so important,” said Joyce Raezer, retired executive director of the National Military Family Association and a member of the Strategic Board of the Millennium Cohort Study. “You’re going to learn what’s going on with military teens.”

“As the service member continues in the military or leaves and becomes a veteran, we’ll learn what that transition process is like. Now we’re adding adolescents to that mix,” Raezer said. “We’ll get a deeper understanding of what’s going on with the families and how they’re coping with military life.”

Military spouses have been included in the Millennium Cohort Study for more than a decade.

Raezer also hopes the research will provide information about whether these adolescents plan to join the military, and whether their experience as a military child is going to have an impact on being a service member.

“Because of the strain of military life, will the children be willing to serve, and will they be able to serve?” Raezer asked. “Will they be able to go to college using their parent’s GI bill benefit?”

“This opens up a whole lot of potential to gather information we didn’t have, for DoD and private organizations to figure out better ways to help these families,” Raezer said.

While Department of Defense officials conducted surveys of military youth decades ago, those have been discontinued, and there are no known longitudinal studies of military teens over time.

“Some research has shown that military adolescents are generally more resilient than their civilian peers, whereas other research has found that military-connected youth exhibit higher rates of depression, substance use, suicidality, and lower academic performance compared to their civilian peers,” McMaster said.

“These differences in findings may be rooted in research methods that rely on parent reports of adolescent behaviors, which is not an accurate gauge of youths’ own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, particularly among older youth who are able to spend more time outside of the home. Numerous studies also rely on samples of convenience that are small and not representative of the full military community.”

This study will address those discrepancies by using a large sample of families with adolescents representing all branches and components of the services, as well as veteran families, she said.

The Millennium Cohort Study was launched in 2001 just before 9/11, and has enrolled over 260,000 service members from all six branches of the military. The researchers enrolled five different panels over the years. The next enrollment panel will be recruited starting in 2023.

The participating service members complete follow-up surveys every three to five years, even after leaving military service, continuing through 2068.

Broad survey topics are related to mental and physical health, health behaviors, military exposures and other experiences such as combat and deployment. To date, more than 120 research publications have been produced to date based on the findings.

“We hope that we have built a strong foundation of trust with Millennium Cohort Study participants and that they will allow us to engage their children in this landmark study,” McMaster said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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