Examining the role of place-based interventions in supporting military families: A qualitative study of family-centered therapeutic landscapes
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United States military families, including active duty, Reserve and National Guard, and veteran families, continue to face challenges and risks to psycho-social health and well-being. Deployments are ongoing and represent a significant source of stress during which families attempt to maintain relationships across great distances and within the dangerous context of wartime service. Injured service members (both those who continue to serve and those who are separated from the military) and their families, contend with multiple issues related to managing symptoms, finding adequate treatment, and carving out lives under new circumstances. Research with military families continues to be essential to understanding how to best support the military members, spouses/partners, and children who sacrifice so much with their service. This qualitative dissertation uses a grounded theory approach to explore military families’ experiences of stress and coping during deployment, especially those of female spouses. In addition, it examines family-level efforts to reconnect and reintegrate post-deployment and post-injury through participation in a family retreat program. In particular, this study focuses on the emplaced experiences inherent to maintaining the home during deployment and attending a place-based retreat. In doing so, this study implements a family systems approach to understanding these emplaced experiences, acknowledging the complex relational connections within families and the ways in which stressful events in particular, have ripple effects through the family unit. This dissertation is comprised of three papers empirically based on qualitative interviews with parents who attended the National Military Family Association’s Operation Purple Family Retreat® (OPFR) and Operation Purple Healing Adventures® (OPHA) programs in 2013. The first paper looks at the deployment experiences of 43 female spouses with children, with particular attention to the often overlooked duties spouses take on as the primary parent on the home front. This paper conceptualizes military spouses as “stay-behind parents” and presents findings related to the stress and coping processes characteristic of this role. The second paper turns to parents’ experiences at the Operation Purple retreats and seeks to understand how these family programs function as “therapeutic landscapes,” a health geography framework used to understand links between places and healing. Interviews with 50 parents demonstrate interconnected program components related to the physical environment, social environment, and symbolic environment that facilitated participants’ therapeutic experiences. The third paper examines respondents’ experiences of the nature settings where the Operation Purple retreats occurred, seeking to illuminate the lived (military family) experience of spending time in natural environments. Findings are arranged in three phenomenological domains that both confirm and extend existing nature-health research: Being away, Being in, and Being fascinated. This study seeks to deepen our understanding of military family life and the ways in which military family systems are impacted by wartime service, deployment, and parental injury. It also aims to direct attention to existing, on-the-ground supports for military families, and place-based programs in particular. By theorizing mechanisms at work in these programs, practices can be further refined and developed to meet the needs of military families.
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