Bouncing back: Resiliency of Fort Polk's youth palpable during Month of Military Child
April 29, 2011
FORT POLK, La. - A little boy sat in a classroom at Rosepine Elementary School April 21 as more than 100 of his classmates chattered, eating cake and receiving goodie bags in a nearby auditorium: This was no normal school assembly, but a festive observation of the Month of the Military Child, celebrated every year in April. In the auditorium, parents - in uniform and out - sat next to their student or mingled with fellow military family members. Renaldo Mason, though, with his fifth-grade teacher, Jessica Deon, nearby, silently wept.
Both of Renaldo's parents, 1st Sgt. Chantae Peters and Staff Sgt. Stephanie Mason, are deployed overseas. While they're gone, he stays with his stepmother, Marissa Mason, and his baby sister.
"I worry so much about my mom and dad.
"I feel bad and want them to be safe and come back," he said as his teacher consoled him.
Renaldo was eager to speak about his parents, of whom he is proud.
"You can't have better parents than mine. They're Soldiers, fighting for our country."
He also described the uprooted life of an "Army brat."
"I've been to so many schools," he said. "I've lived in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, even Germany. It's hard to move. A lot of friends get mad at me for moving and I tell them it's not my fault."
Some friends even bestow gifts upon Renaldo before he moves: He's gotten a reptile book, a favorite Nintendo DS game and a gold compass, his "favorite possession."
For the 11-year-old, though, the gifts come at a high cost: The absence of both of his parents.
"My dad always takes me fishing, and my mom takes me to see family."
His tears return, but he still manages to see the glass as half full.
"I'm trying to feel good about it - I've been to places I never knew existed - but sometimes I get sad seeing kids with their parents. Sometimes I think it's not fair but I think at least my mom and dad are coming back. They're coming back."
Rosepine Elementary School held the Military Child Month Social April 21 as a way to celebrate and honor military children and their Families. Guidance Counselor Noelani Butcher announced, one by one, the names of children whose parent or parents are deployed and gave away goodie bags decorated with the American flag.
"We know you're uprooted from home, so we want to take every opportunity to make you feel that this is home," said Principal Charles Lewis.
Butcher is married to an Army member herself - Staff Sgt. David Butcher - and he is currently away at a school.
"I'm military as well. I can feel for what these kids go through."
She said she got the idea for Rosepine's program while on Fort Polk: "I was on post and there were flyers up about the Month of the Military Child. I called someone who told me how much was going on for (the kids here). Rosepine Elementary has 145 military kids, so I decided right then I'd do the work to make something happen."
For a guidance counselor to children who, like Renaldo, experience extraordinary change in their young lives, her job can be a challenge.
"But it's a great challenge," she said, "to be the guidance counselor in a community and school with so many military children. It's a blessing. Each child is also different and has a different story, some good, some bad. There are children who have lost a parent and it's wonderful there are resources for them here. They're amazing kids. Resilient. They can handle more than most people ever have to. That's why I do this - knowing I can shape their lives in some good way is awesome."
Though Butcher is a teacher and authority figure, it's the children who, she feels, teach her the most.
"They've humbled me. They've taught me that no matter what I go through, they go through so much more and with such grace."
Before the assembly and his role as official cookie distributer began, third-grader Kaj Crumby sat next to his uniformed father, Capt. Daniel Crumby; his mother is currently deployed. He, too, was eager to speak about his life in the Army.
"When dad first deployed, (my mom and I) tried to get our minds off of it. We made rings from string and took one off each day dad was deployed. On the last day we were so happy."
Like Renaldo, Kaj has lived in multiple places, including Forts Lewis and Leavenworth, and worries, too, about his parents.
"When my parents come home late or when they're both gone overseas it makes me sad. If they both got deployed I'd feel terrible." His eyes welled up. "But I'd be proud."
Members of the Fort Polk military community were on hand for the assembly.
"It's a wonderful event, and wonderful that the local community recognizes and supports the military. It's an honor for us as Soldiers to give back to the community," said Sgt. 1st Class Jerald Egbert. "It's great that we, as Soldiers, are fighting, but the military kids are also fighting the war on terrorism."
Fort Polk's Army Community Service program manager Kristina Capitano shares Egbert's sentiment.
"They're as much a part of the Army as the deployed Soldier," she said.
As program manager for ACS, Capitano oversees many programs meant to ease the separation of the family unit during deployment.
"ACS has so many programs to help support the spouse at home and kids. We offer parenting classes, if a mother has a new baby and needs help. We have a program for young parents with young children. There's a lot here for them."
Capitano also has advice for spouses who would like to foster resiliency in their child during a parental deployment: "Encourage your child to talk to people about how they feel; tell your child to be proud that your Soldier is fighting for everyone's freedom. Let them see you're sad, too, and that it's OK to be sad. Sit down and eat dinner together."
A spouse who is already heeding Capitano's advice, Ann Long, whose daughter Alexis Harriman was recognized at the Rosepine assembly, said, "I try to be her rock, and tell her that it's OK to cry."
Alexis doesn't think it's OK to cry, yet, but she does admit that the separations are hard. Her father, Spc. Joshua Long, is on his third deployment.
For Alexis, his job is a special one. "He defends everyone. Not everyone can say that about their parents."
Alexis copes by cuddling with her "daddy pillow that smells like him" at night - a camouflaged doll with a plastic window for a face in which a photo of a missing loved one might be placed - and a tabby calico cat who "cuddles up with me at night."
Long hugged her daughter and said, "Count your blessings - one more day apart is one day closer to being together."
The strength and resiliency that emanates from Renaldo, Kaj, Alexis and their peers is a shield, palpable and very real for older military children as well.
Julian Williams, 18, the son of Sgt. Maj. Eugene and Tara Williams, works as an apprentice with the Warrior Community Center. He's a football player at DeRidder High School - football, he said, "keeps my mind off a lot of stuff," and he is "surveying his options" when it comes to college. He wants to major in business management and attend culinary arts school. His father is set to deploy to Afghanistan for six months.
Unlike his younger compatriots, Williams - and his peers - knows exactly what he wants to be. He's learned respect from his father, "who is fighting for our country and giving back to everyone else."
Chris Jackson II, 17, the son of retired Sgt. 1st Class Chris Jackson, works at the Auto Skills Center and attends Rosepine High School. Like most Army children, he moved around a lot - his list includes Oregon, Washington, Georgia and Alaska. His father was stationed in Korea when he was 5.
"We were stationed in Alaska when he was in Korea so my mom picked up slack as mom and dad. It was kind of a big factor; if he was around I might have been more into sports. Now I'm just laid back. I missed the experience of dad throwing the baseball and stuff. He came back and taught me a different way to do stuff, which might be more important than throwing a baseball around," said Jackson.
"I respect my dad a lot more knowing that he taught me and teaches other Soldiers. I like that he gives back to other people, that he was trained to care for and respect other people."
Like his peers, Jackson is not shy: Moving around has given these teens resiliency and the ability to blend into communities well.
"I've lived here four years, and before here, I lived for three years in Fort Benning. I like moving, it's pretty fun. I experience new things and meet new people. I have the ability to fit in anywhere. I don't like staying in one place too long."
The choice of bouncing back or not - of being resilient - isn't an option for military children, said Jackson.
"The military puts you in a position where you have to bounce back. My dad was out in the box a lot training, and I wouldn't see him for months at a time. His phone calls kept me motivated. My mom took care of me, and I had to kind of pick up my dad's slack, grow up early, and take care of my mom and sister.
"I've learned through my experiences that if you want to do it, you can do it, even when everyone tells you that you can't."
Jocelyn Macias, 15, is the daughter of Staff Sgt. Sergio and Gissel Macias. Her father has been deployed to Afghanistan since October. She works at the South Fort 50-meter pool.
Jocelyn moved from Los Angeles to Louisiana.
"It was hard, the change. I went from living in Los Angeles to living in a small town in Louisiana and I really didn't fit in. I was the opposite of everyone. They were Southern and I was a city girl. It was hard for me."
When her father deployed, Jocelyn mourned.
"I'm close to my dad; he is my best friend. The deployment is hard. My mom and I are close, but my dad and me - it's so hard for me. He's in Afghanistan until October. He normally holds the family together and takes care of all of us. We depend on him because we would go out every weekend and he would take us everywhere. I'm proud of him, I know he had to go for a reason and I respect him because he's out there protecting our country and at the same time I got closer to my mom; his deployment brought us together."
In addition to the challenges her father's deployment presents, Macias' mother Gissel does not speak English. In California, that wasn't much of a problem, said Jocelyn.
"Here, there aren't that many Spanish-speakers so I have to go with her everywhere and help her out a lot more. But my dad motivates me, as does my little sister. Now that he's gone, it's me taking care of my little sister and mom. We Skype a lot and he tells me 'you better take care of family' and now that I drive, I drive my family everywhere. Since he left it made me think - someone needs to keep us together, and I guess that will be me."
Jocelyn and her family will soon be uprooted again: "I'm moving again next year. I'm a sophomore now. It's going to be hard for me moving in the middle of high school. We don't know where we're going to be stationed: Either Korea or California."
Being the acting head of the family has forced Jocelyn to "find herself" earlier than others might. Though she's only 15, she's already thinking about college.
"I want to major in criminal justice. I want to be a lawyer, a criminal prosecutor. I've always wanted to be a lawyer; I started working with the military police and that motivated me even more - I see my dad and other MPs defend those who need defending and that influences me. I like to fight for what is right."
Along with Julian, Chris and Jocelyn, Diane Tucker, 17, participates in the Child and Youth Services Youth Hire Program, which matches military kids with post organizations that can mentor. Diane is the daughter of Ret. Staff Sgt. Derek and Renate Tucker. Her father is now in the Air Force Reserve.
Tucker's experience is different than those of other Army children: Her father retired early and she never had to move from place to place. She did change schools, which proved a learning experience.
"When I went to a different school, people were different there and that was a change, but a good one."
She returned to the school she originally attended and had to make a new friend set. She also has many "Army brat" friends whom she's loved and lost.
"I've known people here my whole life, but also have become friends with kids whose parents are active military and it's hard when they leave."
She admires her father for doing what "the most admirable thing you can do: Serving your country. He's been tough on me; he's gone through a lot of stuff serving, so he's taught me to be tough," said Tucker.
"My plans for the future keep me going. I know I have to go through all of this to get where I want to go. My dad pushes me to be the best I can be."
The four teens from the Youth Hire Program are, according to Workforce Preparation Specialist L.E. (Lo Lo) McGowan, "making the very best of what they have here. It's the people that make the situation. The ways in which they get involved within the program, at home and in school - it's an interconnection, a web of different connection that builds them up, makes them the resilient people they are.
"By the time they come of age, they can take ownership of their lives and what they're doing. That's pretty darned amazing," said McGowan.