By Staff Sgt. Michael Hughes, 180th Fighter Wing Ohio National GuardApril 28, 2017
SWANTON, Ohio - The men and women who serve in America's armed forces have often been called heroes for their courageous acts and warrior ethos.
These men and women in uniform know that our nation's biggest heroes can come in the smallest sizes and make the biggest sacrifices -- our military children.
April is designated as the Month of the Military Child, underscoring the important role military children play in the armed forces community. The Month of the Military Child helps raise awareness about the unique struggles military children face, builds resiliency to help them cope with those challenges, and celebrates their sacrifices, which often go unrecognized.
These children face all the same challenges of other children growing up, but they also face the added struggle of parents who might deploy to distant locations, even combat zones, for long periods of time, missing major milestones such as birthdays, school recitals and sporting events. These sudden changes can be times of great upheaval for military children and can have varying impacts on children, often depending on their age.
"The hardest age is probably elementary age," said Alina Fuller, director of psychological health at the 180th Fighter Wing. "That's when children really experience that sense of loss and fear because they can't pinpoint their own coping skills. Their stability seems to be more fractured at that age."
Fuller said older children are usually better equipped to cope with the impacts of deployments because they have established peer groups and are more independent.
"Each deployment is going to be different because children experience the deployment at different ages and different levels of maturity," said Judy York, Airmen and Family Readiness Program manager at the 180th Fighter Wing.
York and Fuller agreed that Airmen often underestimate the impact a deployment has on their children, especially when deployments are short.
"Any time Airmen are gone for 30 days or more, they're adapting to their environment," York said. "At the same time, their family is adapting to them being gone."
While the absence of a parent might seem like the most challenging part of a deployment for children, York said the sudden return of a parent can disrupt the routines a child has developed while their parent is deployed because children become accustomed to their living situations and need time to adapt to the changes a homecoming reunion can bring.
"That first two weeks back is going to be euphoric and exciting, but eventually you're going to start feeling agitated and your kids are going to get annoyed with you," Fuller said. "That's normal. The family has to adjust to the new situation. You have to re-navigate the relationships when you return because the other parent has been the sole caregiver for so long and the sole source of authority."
York suggested Airmen allow their children the time necessary for them to adjust to life before taking on a disciplinary role again. Strong communication skills between parents can also help military children cope with changing situations after a parent has returned.
"Children can sense tension and stress in their parents which can have a big impact on kids," Fuller said. "It's important to normalize the emotions associated with the adjustment period after returning home from a deployment. It's just a part of military life. If you can laugh about it and take pride in getting through the ugly parts, it makes it easier."
York recommended parents bring their children out to the base for the different AFRP programs because the programs are designed to help children and spouses cope with the impacts of deployments.
"Kids come out to the hangar and they say goodbye to their parent, so they associate the space with their parent leaving," York said. "Whenever we can do something to help associate the space with fun we're creating positive memories of the space and building resiliency."
"Bringing them out to the wing where they can see other kids who are in the same boat as they are helps them feel a little more comfortable and not so alone," said Master Sgt. Brittany Wolfrum, 180FW command support staff and a mother of three. "They're able to relate to each other and support each other."
A wide variety of programs are available to help military children cope with the unique challenges they face. These programs help military children meet each other, allowing them to share their experiences and emotions with other children experiencing the same things. Family retreats sponsored through the chaplain corps and summer camp programs such as Camp Kelly's Island sponsored by Ohio Military Kids are just a few examples of programs designed to build resiliency in military children.
"If military children aren't celebrated with their peers, if they aren't connected with other military children, then they don't know how to identify each other," Fuller said. "Camps for military kids and other programs help children connect with each other and help them build comradery."
"They get to do fun things together and have that camp experience, but they're having it with somebody else who has been in their shoes," York said.
The push to build resilience among military children and celebrate their sacrifices has not always been a part of life in the military. York began building the AFRP at the 180FW in 2001.
"When I came in after 9/11, our Security Forces Squadron was activated," York said. "I was learning along with them because I had no previous experience. I spent a lot of time learning everything I could and experiencing the challenges they were facing."
"There's been a huge culture shift," Fuller said. "When my husband was in the Navy, we didn't have these programs. There's a lot more awareness and recognition of what military families go through, especially the children. We've come a long way in a short amount of time."
There are more than 1.7 million military children worldwide. Although young, these brave sons and daughters stand in steadfast support of their military parents. April is a time to recognize the sacrifices they make, the resilience they display and the challenges they overcome.