Military Life 101


If you have limited experience being around military families, becoming familiar with the structure, culture and "life" of the military can be helpful. Educators in schools located close to military bases have identified in-service trainings on military life as highly beneficial. In addition to information found here, educators might view a free training video on military culture recommended by the Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD website also offers inexpensive continuing education credit. In addition, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) has an Educational Partnership program which provides information for educators working with military children in public schools.

Section 1: Structure of the Military

The U.S. Military consists of five active-duty Services with each branch having their own individual mission and culture. The Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense (DoD). The Coast Guard reports to the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime and to the DoD (by way of the Navy) during wartime. The U.S. Military also includes Reserve and National Guard units that perform as active-duty service members on a part-time basis. These troops train close to home, deploying when needed to an international conflict or for domestic disaster relief.

If you have a student with a deployed parent, it's helpful to find out if the parent is active duty or in a reserve component. Different demands and stressors are present for active duty versus reserve personnel. Active duty members work for the military full-time with enlisted personnel "re-upping" for lengths of service between 2 to 6 years at a time. These personnel are assigned to installations mostly in the continental U.S. (CONUS), but also around the world. Recent deployments have ranged between 3 to 24 months with personnel often working extensive hours, 7 days a week while deployed. Many troops have been deployed multiple times in recent years. When home, active duty troops with an upcoming deployment often have rigorous training requirements that result in frequent absences from home. Similar to active duty personnel, reserve troops sign up for varying lengths of service. As reservists, they work for the military part-time and hold regular, full-time jobs within their communities. Reserve service requirements vary widely between branches and units, ranging from a few weeks to several months per year. Since 9/11, Reserve and National Guard troops have been called upon or activated for deployments for a year (or more) at a time. Similar to active duty forces, many of the reserve component troops have been deployed repeatedly in recent years. Reserve troops with an upcoming deployment will also be less available even when home as they complete intensive training and are absent for temporary training rotations.

Military rank is another important facet of the military structure. A service member's rank conveys their military status and authority. All Services have this clear hierarchical structure in place. Commissioned Officers command or "out rank" all other personnel and Warrant Officers out rank Enlisted personnel. Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO), also called Petty Officers or Chiefs in the Navy, are Enlisted personnel who have earned higher levels of responsibility and authority. You may also hear a military parent refer to their "grade" which refers to pay grade. Some examples of "grades" would be E-1 to E-9 for Enlisted personnel, W-1 to W-5 for Warrant Officers, and O-1 to O-10 for Commissioned Officers. The various branches' ranks, insignia and pay grades are available at DoD Insignias.

Section 2: Military Culture

The current military community is a generally young workforce with close to half of its members having children. The majority of military personnel are men, though women continue to increase in numbers. Dual career families, where both the husband and the wife are in the military, are also increasing. Military life is marked by frequent relocations and often living far away from extended family. The National Military Family Association estimates the average military child moves 6 to 9 times between kindergarten and high school. While base housing is offered on many installations, many military families live within the community. In fact, over 70% of military kids attend public schools in their local communities. In addition to moving due to a permanent change of station (PCS) every few years, some families also voluntarily move to be closer to family support systems during deployments. Military spouse employment is also an issue for many families, as frequent and unpredictable moves interrupt a spouses' civilian career advancement.

Across all the branches, common ideals and values are taught, trained and reinforced to service members. Many of these beliefs are found in military families and kids — ideals such as loyalty, integrity, honor, duty and service. Active duty military kids are used to a cohesive community environment and are very aware of military command being involved in their family's life. They are accustomed to routines and schedules, and often have a strong sense of teamwork. They have been exposed to different cultures and lifestyles, and often have a more tolerant attitude toward "different" individuals. Patriotism, adaptability and resourcefulness are often positive characteristics found in military students.

Parents are encouraged by command and all the literature they receive to advise their child's school about deployments. However, educators often state the first they know about a deployment is when they contact the parent about a student's academic or behavioral issues at school. Parents chose not to inform the school about deployments for a variety of reasons. However, the more "military-friendly" a school environment is perceived to be, the more likely a parent will feel comfortable disclosing this crucial information.

Section 3: Speaking the Language

When talking with military parents, it helps to have an idea of military protocol and common expressions. Active duty parents may be immersed in "military lingo" more than reserve parents. The Army refers to its members as "soldiers," the Air Force as "airmen," the Navy as "sailors" and the Marines as, well, "Marines." You may also hear reference to "purple" services — these are military agencies or services that are available to all branches and components of the military. It's appropriate to address service members by their rank (rather than Mr. or Ms.). Service members are required to stand when certain ranks enter or leave a room and to address superiors by "Sir" or "Ma'am." Subsequently, you will often see these same courtesies extended in their civilian life as well. Military personnel are required to salute those in rank above them, though not indoors or in vehicles. While a service member is in uniform they must observe certain protocols during the display of the U.S. flag or the playing of the National Anthem. Operational Security, or OPSEC, is a common term used in the military. OPSEC is defined as protecting U.S. military operations by keeping potential adversaries from discovering critical operational information. Military families are trained in not sharing, even innocently, certain information that could jeopardize the military mission of their parent or loved one. You may also hear the term "down range" which refers to troops leaving the U.S. for a theatre of operation or combat zone.

Another unfamiliar aspect of military life for civilians is the use of military time. When talking with military parents, you may hear reference to 0800 ("zero-eight-hundred") or 1530 ("fifteen-thirty") to confirm drop off or pick up times for their child. Military time, which is also used in various civilian settings, is a more exact and concise way of expressing time. All 24 hours in a day are translated into a 4 digit number with the addition of a "0" before smaller numbers and adding 12 hours to times between 1:00 PM and midnight. So 0800 would be 8:00 AM and 1530 would be 3:30 PM.

It is helpful when working with military families to have some idea of common military acronyms. Military personnel will readily (and probably humorously) explain any acronym if you ask. Here are a few of the more common terms you will likely hear:

Commanding Officer
Continental United States
Child, Youth and School Services
Defense Enrollment and Eligibility Reporting System (database of all military members and family members)
Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury
Department of Defense
Department of Defense Dependent Schools (schools operated overseas by the DoDEA)
Department of Defense Education Activity
Exceptional Family Member Program (program for military family members with special needs)
Family Advocacy Program (broad-based programs in each branch to address child and partner abuse)
Family & Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command (Army)
Family Readiness Group (spouse and family support group for each unit)
Family Support Centers (each service has support centers to serve family members — check them out!)
Military Community and Family Policy program
Military & Family Life Consultant (counselors often located in schools on base and in the community)
Military Treatment Facility
Morale, Welfare, Recreation (military programs that provide support services for members and families)
Noncommissioned Officer (an enlisted person corporal or above)
Outside the Continental United States, including Alaska and Hawaii
Operation Enduring Freedom (official US military name for the war in Afghanistan)
Operation Iraqi Freedom (official US military name for the initial combat operations in Iraq)
Operation New Dawn (official US military name for subsequent stability operations in Iraq)
Operational Security
Permanent Change of Station (reassignment to a different military installation)
Point of Contact
School Liaison Officer
Senior Noncommissioned Officer (usually rank E-7 or above)
Temporary Duty or Temporary Active Duty (work related trips that members take for short periods of time)
DOD health care program for active duty and retired service members and families (was CHAMPUS)
Veteran's Affairs (agency that oversees all services for military veterans)
Executive Officer (the second officer in command)

Section 4: The Deployment Cycle

Deployment of both active duty and reserve troops has increased in recent years. The number of children who have (or had) a parent or caregiver deploy are estimated at 2 million and over 900,000 of those children had a parent deploy multiple times. Deployments have always been a way of life for the Navy and Coast Guard, but Service-wide combat deployments into war zones have added a whole new level of stress for our current generation of students. Students through the 5th grade have only known war and older students with a parent in the military often won't remember a time when their parent was home more than they were deployed.

Reserve and National Guard military children who are unfamiliar with the military way of life may be under additional stress as their parents are activated for prolonged active duty. Since Reserve and Guard units are not affiliated with a particular installation a built-in support network may not be available. Often children of Reservists report feeling less understood or supported by their peers and teachers than do active duty students. Financial concerns often worry these students as many reserve service members take a pay cut when they take a leave of absence from their civilian jobs.

From a student's perspective deployment can be divided into three phases. Many students cope well with deployments but some children struggle with the changes a deployment requires. Educators may find our Typical Student Behaviors section helpful in understanding children's common emotional and behavioral reactions to the phases of deployment.

  • Pre-Deployment: service member is informed of an upcoming deployment

    The length of this phase can vary widely, from several weeks up to a full year. Families vary in when they chose to tell their children about an upcoming deployment. Since service members must often train more extensively prior to a deployment, children may notice a difference in mom or dad's availability and periodic absences even before they are told of the impending deployment. Reserve and National Guard troops often must relocate to a military installation toward the end of this phase in preparation for mobilization.

  • Deployment: service member departs home for their assigned mission and theater of operations

    The family must adjust to the "new normal" routine of life without the other parent or caregiver at home. In single parent or dual military families, the student may be adjusting to life without a parent at all and coping with an alternate caregiver. Some families of both active duty and reserves move during the deployment in order to be closer to extended family. While these families have the added support of family, they lose the military network of their home installation and/or the familiarity with their normal school and community.

  • Post-Deployment: service member returns home

    The child and family experience an exciting, though sometimes stressful, homecoming with their loved one. Reserve components may return to a demobilization station for some time prior to their actual return home. Both active duty and reserve troops must reintegrate back into family life and their normal jobs. Short-term readjustment reactions are common for returning troops, and students may see their parent sleep poorly, be irritable or have difficulty concentrating. Many families find this phase the most difficult as everyone has changed during the deployment and now must find their way back together again.


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Department of Defense.(n.d.). Guide for helping children and youth cope with seperation. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from

U.S. Army Child, Youth & School Services and USDA.(2010). Operation Military Kids Ready, Set, Go! Training Manual. Pullman, WA; Author.

U.S. Department of the Defense.(n.d.).About DoD. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from

National Center for PTSD.(n.d.).Understanding military culture. Retrieved February 15, 2011 from

Wong, M. & Department of Defense.(n.d.) Educator's guide to the military child during deployment. Retrieved March 4, 2011 from