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UH-Hilo to study effects of deployment on military families


Tribune-Herald staff writer

A University of Hawaii at Hilo researcher hopes that a $2.7 million Department of Defense grant will help ease the stresses put on families when a loved one is deployed with the military.

“The ultimate goal of this project is to better understand the effects of military deployment on family functioning in order to develop and guide support programs for these families,” said Charmaine Higa-McMillan, an associate professor of psychology at UH-Hilo and principal investigator for the the ‘Ohana Heroes Project on the Big Island.

Stress as a result of having a loved one on deployment can take several forms, she said.

“You can have the parents seeing anxiety, with fears and worries about the other parent who is gone, are they going to come back, and what will that be like? And then you can have the children experiencing separation fears, they don’t want to be separated from the parent, and they may start to worry about losing their second parent,” she said.

“Then, in younger and older children, they don’t always express their fears. They might act out with behavioral problems and disobedience. How are they functioning in school? What are their teachers seeing from them in a classroom setting? All of those things can interact and interfere with each other.”

Beginning Monday, research project staff will collect data from volunteer families, she said.

In addition to asking families to participate in interviews and fill out surveys, researchers will look at objective evidence, such as observing sleep patterns and collecting samples of their saliva.

“We look at cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone. When we get really stressed, if we’re worried about something or someone, our bodies produce more. Our bodies produce it throughout the day,” Higa-McMillan said.

“We’re trying to recruit 150 children and families across the Big Island and Oahu,” she added.

While Oahu obviously has a larger population of military families from which to choose, the study will also rely on collecting data from nonmilitary families to provide a control group with which to compare the results.

“We want to look at families who have a deployed service member and see how they are affected, but compared to what? That’s why we need a control group,” Higa-McMillan said.

Hawaii provides an especially diverse pool from which to draw research participants, she said.

“One of the reasons we chose Hawaii was because we have diversity, or at least a different kind of diversity than what they have in Florida or Texas. We want the results to be generalizable. If we did the studies only in Utah, how does that apply to families elsewhere like Hawaii?” she said. “They wanted to make sure they had a diverse sample.”

She added that various sources that work with military families have supplied anecdotal information confirming that families deal with added stress when loved ones are deployed.

“We just don’t have the data yet to show it,” she said.

Should this study confirm that, the researchers would then move their focus onto developing intervention and prevention programs.

A multisite study, UH-Hilo will split the funding with partners at the University of Central Florida and the University of Houston.

The Department of Defense funding was awarded in April, and lasts for three years. Researchers hope to complete the collection of data at the end of the first two years, and then spend the remaining time interpreting the data, Higa-McMillan said.

Area residents interested in participating can earn $100 cash for helping with the research. The ‘Ohana Heroes Project is looking for all types of families on Hawaii Island and Oahu with at least one child.

For more information, visit, email, or call (808) 933-3861 on Hawaii Island or (808) 365-4624 on Oahu.

Email Colin M. Stewart at


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