Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

US Veterans & Military Families

Service members involved in physical therapy at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio wait for President Bush to visit, Nov. 8, 2007. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

2.7 million service members have been to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and over half of them have deployed more than once. Many times that number of Americans have borne the costs of war as spouses, parents, children, and friends cope with their loved ones’ absence, mourn their deaths, or greet the changed person who often returns.

Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face a life of disability due to the physical and psychological injuries they sustain in the war zones. At least 970,000 veterans have some degree of officially recognized disability as a result of the wars. Many more live with physical and emotional scars despite lack of disability status.

The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more difficult for military families than have past wars, with more frequent deployments and shorter periods at home. In comparison to the civilian population, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are facing elevated rates of suicide and mental illness, drug and alcohol dependence, car crashes, and homelessness. They and their families also experience higher rates of divorce as well as homicide, child abuse, and child neglect by both parents left behind and returning veterans.

When service members return home injured, it is often their families who provide care – even when veterans are housed in military hospitals. The offloading of care for the war wounded onto families and community organizations has been an express part of military planning, and should count among the costs of war.

Key Findings

  • The VA only began tracking war veteran suicides in 2008 even though rates now appear significantly higher than among comparable civilians. 

  • A July 2010 report found that child abuse in Army families was been three times higher in homes from which a parent was deployed.

  • The military has increasingly off-loaded the burden of care for service members’ health onto their families and communities, and mainly onto female spouses. 


  • The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs should record all war-related injuries and post-deployment deaths of service members, regardless of whether they receive VA treatment.

  • Congress should fully project future obligated costs for veterans’ medical care and disability when calculating how to budget for future war costs.

(Page updated as of January 2015)