Military families are famously uncomplaining. This is why, explains army wife and pre-school manager Anita Birtles, they observe an unwritten rule never to ask each other how they are. And why army chaplain Tony Roache cheerfully says that the biggest moan is about husbands coming home after six months in Afghanistan who dump their stuff and grab the TV remote control.
But bigger issues like childcare, education, housing and allowances have forced these families out of their traditional reticence. One wife, quoted in the Army Families Federation's latest annual report, says, 'The battle starts as soon as the men have their new job. You have to fight for everything - the quarter, school place, NHS places.'
Inadequate housing is a major concern. Despite an ongoing MoD improvements programme, a 2009 National Audit Office report found almost a third of the 47,000 families in Service Family Accommodation dissatisfied.
The Army Families Federation (AFF) stresses the importance of access to high-quality, consistent childcare for mobile service families. It must be affordable for women whose earning potential has been dented by frequent relocations.
Julie McCarthy, chief executive of the AFF, says the best nurseries take a flexible approach. 'Space allocation is difficult - one month a nursery might need five places, then a new regiment arrives and they need 700!
'Quite understandably, civilian nurseries have difficulties getting their heads around it. But many nurseries in garrison towns are geared round military families, with a large turn-around, and may offer places for less than a whole term.'
Service families typically move every two years. This highly mobile lifestyle creates problems, including sourcing childcare and school places, transferring between school systems (possibly a change in year group or curriculum), finding dentists and GPs, dealing with NHS waiting lists, sourcing benefits or finding jobs. When a soldier is deployed, women - and it is usually women - are left to tackle these issues single-handed, as well as coping with their own and their children's separation anxiety.
The forces have always prided themselves on caring for their soldiers, and charities like the Royal British Legion have long been concerned with families' welfare. Best known for its annual Poppy Day appeal, it also wields a campaigning arm, directly targeting political parties. Its General Election manifesto sets out priorities for the next Government to improve conditions for bereaved families, service personnel and veterans.
An RBL spokesman says, 'The Legion feels there has been substantial improvements in the past year, in raising cross-departmental awareness that services issues extend beyond mere MoD responsibilities and into all levels of Government, in particular those concerned with health, children and families. However, much remains to be done in ensuring delivery at the coalface on these commitments.'
The Rev Tony Roache is an army chaplain returning to Afghanistan as hospital chaplain at Camp Bastion Hospital in Helmand province. He feels encouraged that while every commander strives to secure his soldiers' welfare, now there are moves to get political figures involved in resourcing it.
'Housing issues are getting infinitely better,' he says. 'We are well on the way to recovery. In terms of welfare provision, the Government statement that no soldiers should feel disadvantaged by being in the army is key.'
As wars continue in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this political dimension is increasingly important. The 2008 cross-Government strategy paper, The Nation's Commitment (Service Personnel Command Paper), lists a series of 47 commitments to the armed forces to ensure that service personnel, their families and veterans are not disadvantaged by the unique demands of service life. These cover key areas like compensation, education, healthcare and work.
Nineteen of these 47 are already fully implemented, with the majority due to be completed next year. A spokeswoman for the Government Equalities Office said the timeline for completion depends on the practicalities of delivery - areas which involve changes to the law, or long-term research.
More progress was made last month when Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, and defence secretary Bob Ainsworth announced further measures while touring UK military bases to meet forces families. These include new ways of helping army spouses into employment, as well as reviews into education and transport.
The Army Families Federation lobbies the army and Government on such issues. Julie McCarthy says, 'Something that has really changed is the involvement of people like Harriet Harman and Government departments like the DCSF. They have realised that it is not just an MoD issue. We are citizens first, and local authorities have a part to play in removing disadvantage.'
One early years setting well experienced in the military lifestyle is Carousel Nurseries' Clyde Nursery, at HM Naval Base at Faslane. Its manager Gemma Peace says, 'Almost all the families here, even the staff, have partners within the Royal Navy or Royal Marines working in Afghanistan. Being in the same situation, we understand what they are going through, and are here to help. For some, if their husband is on a submarine, that might mean being completely out of touch for up to three months.'
She adds that families also suffer from being relocated far from traditional support networks. 'Sometimes they can't provide a name for emergency contacts, because they don't know anyone close by. So we all try to support them. When we do our handovers, at the end of the day, we have a unique connection with them.'
Anita Birtles, manager at Poperinghe Pre-School, within Arborfield Garrison, near Reading, is equally aware of the realities of military life. She and her soldier husband moved house 17 times in 22 years. Once, they moved one morning, and got another posting that afternoon. At Poperinghe, there is a 50:50 civilian/military population, both children and staff, to create essential stability within the setting.
Mrs Birtles has an open-door policy for mothers who want to chat. 'An unwritten rule in the army is, don't say "How are you?" They may not be coping, and they don't want to be asked. If someone's not coping well, they can come and talk.
'Families may need a lot of support when men are away. We work closely with community development workers as well as the families' officer and Army welfare. A child may come here, aged four, having already been to three nurseries. They do become very resilient, because they are used to being popped from one to another. They talk about postings, they have that military vocabulary.
'We very much work to make sure there is a very caring, stable and nurturing environment. We have a strong routine and adults they can become attached to. Some will know adults who will have worked in a nursery elsewhere.'
Parents benefit from the daily Stay and Play group, and from the flexibility to leave their child for extra hours if necessary.
Absent parents maintain contact via e-mail and 'blueys' (aerogrammes free of charge to servicemen). Mrs Birtles says. 'There are so many developmental changes in a child that you can miss in a six-month deployment. Dads have said to me that they received a picture and it made them cry.'
A STORY FOR COPING
A soldier's Iraq experiences inspired him to write a storybook to help children cope with the realities of army life.
Major Chris MacGregor wrote a poem for his two young children to help them understand his absences. Now he has turned My Daddy's Going Away ... into a storybook as a useful resource for parents, schools and nurseries.
His book, published this month, is among an increasing number of initiatives aimed at helping families develop coping strategies. Storybook Soldiers encourages fathers to record a bedtime story on CD. The Children's Education Advisory Service, funded by the MoD, provides information on all aspects of forces children's education, including handbooks for schools and nurseries.
At the Clyde Nursery at Faslane, they honour their military connections by encouraging children and staff to wear red on the last Friday of every month.
Tony Roache agrees that separation anxiety is constant, and supports such books as Major McGregor's. 'The idea that mum can get on and cope without resources is now out of the window. If you're struggling for what to say, this will be a help.'
- My Daddy's Going Away ... by Major Christopher MacGregor, published by Giddy Mangoes at £5.99 plus p&p. Visit: www.mydaddysgoingaway.com
- Royal British Legion, www.britishlegion.org.uk, tel 08457 725725
- Army Families Federation, www.aff.org.uk, central office tel 01980 615525