Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

U.S. 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)

Since 2001, between 1.9 and 3 million service members have served in post-9/11 war operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, 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. Over 1.8 million veterans have some degree of officially recognized disability as a result of the wars veterans of the current wars account for more than half of the severely disabled veteran population. Many additional veterans live with physical and emotional scars despite lack of disability status or outstanding claims.

The 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 rates are now significantly higher than among comparable civilians. 

  • A 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 and partners. 


  • 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.
  • The U.S. government should establish a Veterans Trust Fund, similar to already-existing funds for Social Security or Medicare, to set aside the necessary money and demonstrate the seriousness of its commitment.

(Page updated as of August 2021)