Simply by asking questions and collecting data, research can be a powerful engine of positive change.

With the support of donors across the country, True Patriot Love has developed a long term partnership with the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR). Our commitment of $5 million to support the development of cutting-edge research and program evaluation will help improve the health outcomes for Canadian military personnel, Veterans, and their families.

Dr. Deborah Norris is a researcher and faculty member at Mt. Saint Vincent University in Halifax, NS. She was the principal investigator of a unique research project exploring military family life from the perspective of adult children of Veterans. Her project, Exploring the experiences of adult children of CAF veterans: Implications for program and policy development, was funded by True Patriot Love and Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR).

As you’ll soon read, one of Dr. Norris’ motivations as an investigator is finding and amplifying what she calls “absent voices”.

“In the course of recruiting for different studies, a lot of people who were adult children of military families were saying “No one talks to us!”” says Norris. “I was able to excavate these long-buried stories thanks to True Patriot Love’s funding.”

Documenting the experiences of children of CAF parents

Children of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) parents are expected to adjust to a military lifestyle that often includes stress connected to frequent moves, parental deployment, and worry about their parent’s safety in combat. Despite these tensions, some children develop positive coping strategies.

What is not known, however, is whether the skills and strategies that children of CAF parents developed during childhood continue into adulthood. To learn more, Dr. Norris and her team listened to the stories of over twenty adult children of CAF parents (now Veterans) who served between the Korean and Gulf Wars.

Dr. Norris and her team will be making policy recommendations to develop strength-based family support programs that focus on children. A key consideration for such support programs comes from recognizing the impact that parents’ military service has on their children.

True Patriot Love spoke to Dr. Norris about finding absent voices, translating research to policy and the surprising importance of coffee in knowledge translation.

What questions does your research address?

One of the questions guiding our research is the extent to which early life experience in a military family, particularly in that earlier era, travel with individuals across the life course. In what ways have capacities and strengths developed while growing up as a military child affected the rest of their lives? The participants in our study shared meaningful insights with us about how their formative experiences shaped and sustained who they are today.

What did you learn from adult children of CAF parents?

I’ve seen this in other studies as well, but what really did flash out at me in the True Patriot Love study is the concept of social capital.

Social capital is one of the most important resources we can ever acquire in our lifetime: it refers to the resources and the capacities we develop though the close connections nurtured through our lives. Social capital helps to ensure that if we need help, there’ll be somebody there, and when somebody else needs help, we’ll step in and help them, too.

In the era that was in focus in our True Patriot Love study, families lived in base housing, that was common in that era. One of the most heartwarming anecdotes shared in the study focused on what happened when a moving truck came on base. Participants shared that all the kids ran to the truck to welcome the new kids. To me, the interest in integrating the kids moving in was developed and sustained through social capital, providing evidence of two significant elements of social capital: shared responsibility and collective competence. There were many other examples of this in our data, but the stories of the moving trucks coming on base were particularly compelling.

If the base housing environment made social capital more accessible, how can we replicate or mirror the close connections made through base housing in our current era?

I have always been amazed by how resourceful and resilient military families were and are. Their stories focusing on the relationship between social capital and resiliency have affected me, as a human, deeply. The individuals that I have had the privilege of meeting through my research share meaningful stories about how they develop resiliency, mobilize it, and sustain it through their lives. For the cohort participating in the True Patriot Love-funded study, base housing provided the social capital though which resiliency was fostered and maintained throughout their lives. While contemporary military families do not, as a rule, live on bases, the importance of finding other ways to build social capital and resiliency has been reinforced, I think, through this research.

How does research reach the front-line people who can implement the findings?

This may sound oversimplified, but for me, it has always been important to cross research, policy, and practice boundaries. This can be as simple as finding ways to keep talking to each other. One way that is happening at present is through the Coffee Talk series ongoing between researchers and the network of military and family resource centres across the country. I have had the opportunity to participate in this series as have others. These “talks” are mutually beneficial. They give us an opportunity to share our research with people who are responsible for developing and implementing programs and policies for military families. Moreover, we learn from the front-line practitioners about their priorities and needs, which, in turn, informs our research.

How will the research’s findings get translated to policy recommendations?

As an applied researcher, I am fortunate to be supported by organizations such as CIMVHR, the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families, and True Patriot Love, of course. Each of these military family-focused entities is interested in knowledge translation. Results of the True Patriot Love study, in particular, underscores the significance of social capital for military families, and, hopefully, will inform policies designed to foster this within military families, albeit in different ways than it was for the participants in the study.

To me, it is important to bring into view the often absent voices and absent experiences of military family members, including adult children, the focus of the True Patriot Love study, but others as well. I am fortunate in that I have been welcomed into the spaces occupied by program facilitators supporting military family members. In fact, my military family research program was kickstarted at the Military Family Resource Center here in Halifax. I was invited in to develop programs for military partners balancing work and family and from there I was hooked.

Retention is, to some extent, dependent on supports for families who are integral in sustaining military imperatives. As they do, they are also accommodating the effects of combat, risk, relocation, and separation. Having family supports I think is going to be key to keeping the military viable in the twenty-first century. Also, we need to be supporting families “in their own right”, independent of their role in supporting the member and the military institution.

Describe the role that CIMVHR has in your work.

CIMVHR was a game changer for me. As an academic researcher I had my community, but it was very hard to cross the boundaries between the work that I and others in my space do and the policymakers, the government, and people in the community. CIMVHR brings us all together. The annual forum is a really energizing event for me and for so many others because everybody’s there. That’s been key to getting things developing military family research in Canada.

How can the research process make people’s lives better?

It provides people with a voice. For example, adult children frequently expressed interest in our studies over the years, signalling that their voices have not been heard.

For many of the people in that study, I was the first person that they actually talked to about their experiences growing up in a military family. That [openness] had nothing to do with me – it could have been anybody – but I’m the first person who asked them. The intent here is not to critique the reasons why some voices have been silenced. At different times and different eras that was the norm, but it’s time to change that now.

Want to learn more? Check out CIMVHR’s new Beyond the Battlefield podcast, also available on Apple and Spotify and their YouTube channel. Dr. Norris is featured on episode #2 “Who’s stoking the home fires? Gendered expectations of military families”.