War Comes Home: San Diego Military Families
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September 25, 2009 – KPBS Reporter Alison St John, who produced the series War Comes Home, talks about special challenges faced by military families in San Diego.
Related story: What Kind Of Stuggles Do Military Kids Deal With?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): San Diego has long been considered a military community. More Department of Defense dollars are spent in San Diego than in any other county. A major economic boost for the region. However, less is known about the toll multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have on service members and their families. So joining me now to talk about what happens when the war comes home is KPBS Reporter Alison St John. Welcome, Alison. ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS Reporter): Glad to be here. PENNER: Sort of give us some context, an idea of the numbers of military and veterans that are in the county. ST JOHN: There are about 100,000 plus of active duty based in San Diego County at this time. A little more than half of them are navy, maybe 40,000 on Camp Pendleton, about 10,000 on Miramar, and a little more than 50,000 navy at bases all around the bay and downtown. In terms of veterans, we have 240,000 officially, although I've heard people say it's closer to 300,000. PENNER: So that's considerable. How has their presence kind of shaped the county? ST JOHN: Well, the navy has been in San Diego since 1901. And it's interesting; SANDAG has figures of how many jobs the navy was providing back in the early part of last century. Right after the World Wars, obviously, there's a big expansion of the navy at that point. So, in 1951, according to SANDAG, there were 203,000 jobs in the county and 140,000 of those, well over half of them, were active duty. So, it played it played an extremely important part in the job market back in the '50s. Since then of course, the whole economy has diversified massively and we now have about 1.5 million jobs in the county. So, you can see, 100,000 active duty, it shrunk but it's still significant when you consider, probably more than half of those are married and with children. PENNER: But aside from the jobs, what other economic impact does the military have on this community? ST JOHN: Well, of course there is the defense industry, it's huge, as well. We are the fourth-largest recipient of defense contractor dollars in the country. So, all together the economic impact of military is significant. The DoD has estimated to have spent about $15 billion, according to SDMAC in the last official numbers we have had in 2007-2008. And right now we have billions more being spent on infrastructure and construction on the bases to upgrade their facilities. PENNER: OK, we sort of have a nice picture now of the military and what it means to the community. Let's talk about the military itself. We know they have been very engaged in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and there are lots of family members involved. What are some of the costs to the military of this kind of engagement? ST JOHN: Well, I think that's a very important question, Gloria, because that is much less easy to assess. And it is more of an invisible cost than the visible numbers, we can talk about in dollars. And the cost of this particular war on families is the repeated deployments, which I think nobody who hasn't experienced them can really quite grasp what a strain that is on a family. It's like a cycle of deployments rather than in World Wars I and II, when people saw their loved ones go off and then hopefully come back and that was it. Now, you have to adjust your whole family routine to this cycle where the loved one that's deployed is gone for maybe up to a year or more comes back. You've have just developed a family system to deal without them –it's like a single-parent family. They come back changed. They are changed in unknown ways. You have to adapt. You have to fit them back into the family routine. And then you have to be ready to let them go again. So, some families have seen this cycle happen up to half-a-dozen times. And that can be pretty stressful in a relationship. PENNER: I could imagine. Who's leading the family today? Is it Mommy or Daddy? Is Daddy gone and Mommy is the head of the family? What kind of problems does this show? ST JOHN: Well, when you look at the children, and I think this is one of the things that I'm thinking that in future years we'll see more research into the effects on children of so many of our active-duty being gone on recycled deployments. In the education system, for example, it's quite hard on them. They have to move a lot, obviously being in the military. But then there is that added pressure of not knowing whether your father, your parent, will come home. And there is very little known about how that affects academic performance. The school district is just now beginning –I believe they have been given a large grant- to try to start to address that with some more support groups for military families. PENNER: You mentioned support groups. What other kinds of help is there, out there, for the families and for the kids and the adults as well? ST JOHN: There's a lot of help for military families, for active duty military families. You have to credit the military for doing really doing more for families. They have excellent benefits; they have really good child care. There are some problems, I would say, about expressing any kind of emotional difficulties because even now, there are military families who prefer to get their help off-base. It can affect somebody's career if some emotional effects are talked about on the base. So, that is still a bit of a problem. But the military is actually providing so many benefits for families that you could almost say the financial incentive to get married, among the young enlisted. PENNER: Alison, thank you very much and of course, you have been preparing a special page on our Web site, KPBS.org, on the war coming home. ST JOHN: That's right. You can find all of our stories there. PENNER: Very good. Thanks again. Alison St. John.