Taking peek inside military child’s life during Month of Military Child

By CourtesyApril 24, 2024

Taking peek inside military child’s life during Month of Military Child
Emmalee Polk, Fort Johnson military child. (Courtesy photo Emmalee Polk) (Photo Credit: Angie Thorne) VIEW ORIGINAL


Military child

FORT JOHNSON La. — Let me set the scene for you. Imagine never having enough time to set down roots, build lasting relationships or connect without the nagging thought everything will disappear within the next couple of years. It’s a lonely path. Easy to stumble through once your footing is lost. You need a reminder that while your time at any one place is temporary, it’s okay to passionately adore every moment while there and be filled with a love so powerful it makes saying goodbye catch in your throat as tears line your eyes. Military kids learn to shoulder this burden and we carry it well. However, nothing stops it from becoming heavy.

My journey began May 29, 2006, at Womack Army Hospital, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. From the moment I was born, my life intertwined with the military. At the time, my father was deployed and it would still be several months before he was reunited with my mom and introduced to me for the very first time. I remember sitting down with my mom as we flipped through old photographs of my dad coming home and meeting me. Most kids have photos with their dads in the hospital — they are wrapped up in those white cloth blankets as their dad sits in a stiff hospital chair, smiling down at their newborn baby. That’s not how mine looked at all. In my photograph, I am 5 months old, buckled into a carrier and wearing a homemade patriotic dress made by my great-grandmother. I’m in a hangar surrounded by Soldiers greeting their Families. The picture shows my dad with the biggest smile plastered across his face as he holds me — still dressed in his Army uniform.

Some of the most difficult challenges a military child faces are the deployments. My Family has gone through five of them. My parents would walk into my room, sit down on my bed, and tell me the same thing each time, “They need him more than we do right now.” As a child, that was very difficult for me to understand. I got jealous other children had fathers there to support them on their first day of school, wish them a happy birthday, be there for Christmas and kiss them goodnight. Meanwhile, an ocean separated me from mine.

A lot of kids didn’t know what we were going through or how hard it was on our Family. They didn’t know we had to use code names on phone calls because my dad was in a dangerous area or how many nights we had to leave voicemails because Dad could not make it to a phone. They did not know what it was like watching the other fathers and feeling a tight pain in their chest. However, no matter how sad and tedious deployments got, I’m lucky enough to have a mom who has always made them bearable.

When I was 5, Mom was always coming up with creative ways to make our nights feel a little less sad. For example, after we finished cleaning the kitchen from dinner, my mom would put a CD in a little DVD player underneath a kitchen cabinet and we would have a karaoke sing-off to the song Duo from the American Tale movie. For hours we would dance around the kitchen, using wooden spoons as microphones as we sang every lyric. Other nights we would sit on the couch eating frozen dinners and watching a movie before bed. I know doing little things like that helped us all feel happier and a lot less lonely.

Teachers always demonstrated sympathy to their military students — especially those facing deployments like I was. In kindergarten, several teachers pulled military students out of class and led them to a room where they told us we were strong and loved. Each of us left with a special doll dressed in an Army uniform with an empty slot where we could slide in a picture of our loved one overseas. During one of the deployments, my mom bought me a diary so I felt like I always had a personal connection to Dad. I wrote about everything in my diary — always starting it off with the same two words: “Dear Daddy.” One day, I remember writing to my dad in school and my teacher was reading my words over my shoulder. She got a really sad expression on her face as she eased into the desk next to me and began asking me about my dad and why I was writing to him. I remember the tight feeling in my throat and how close I was to tears as I tried to get her to understand what living through deployments feel like. She did her best to understand, but ultimately just smiled at me sadly and told me if I ever needed to talk to someone, she was there.

The last deployment my Family and I faced happened the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I remember decorating for Christmas early that year because it would have been too much for us to do it alone. We all woke up early and settled in the car to take Dad to the airport. My brother and I helped him load all his bags into the back of the car while my dad finished doing something in the house. We drove him to the airport, said our tearful goodbyes and came back home. Even pulling into the driveway felt achingly different knowing it was just the three of us now. When we walked in, our eyes immediately went to the Christmas tree. Underneath the evergreen branches were several wrapped gifts that were not there before. I sat down with my mom as she dissolved into tears at the sight of the gifts and I watched as her fingers drifted from present to present. When we finally left the living room, we were all greeted with another unexpected and emotional surprise. In each of our bedrooms, my Dad took the time to write several encouraging notes on our mirrors for us to wake up to every morning. Of course, that prompted more tears. To this day, I have kept every single sticky note and every single letter left for me on my mirror. Deployments are extremely difficult for any Family, but they have a way of bringing us closer together and bonding us through the challenging experience.

While even the negative aspects of the Army have brought out the best in me, I’ve had countless meaningful experiences that have the same effect. The military offers a unique perspective on life and one of the best lessons I have learned from being a military child is what truly matters in life.

What matters to a military child will always be different than what most children hold dear to their hearts. For instance, many children enjoy the privilege of calling a single place home. That home will always be a constant in their lives. They get to grow up in the same community with their friends and Family, they get to form strong connections to the place they were raised and are able to experience nostalgia when they’re older as they think of where they came from.

However, the life of a military kid is very different story. They soon learn that home is an open road and extended Families are most often seen through the lens of a camera. Many of them say goodbye more times in their first couple of years than most adults will say in a lifetime. I think because of our unique experiences, we get to learn about the things that really matter a lot quicker than those born and raised in one place.

I have also found what matters is the little moments. The best way to understand this is by answering this question: Do you know what it’s like to feel the bittersweetness of a moment while you’re living it? I do. It’s the little things like laughing nonstop with my friends on the bus ride home from school, finishing that last race with my team, cheering on a football game with the band at homecoming, sitting with my friends while listening to our pastor preach, or getting the opportunity to see Family every so often. While living in those moments might not feel like much, looking back on all those little memories is what made the big things matter. My Family and friends matter to me, but it’s those memories we all share and the impacts they’ve made on my life that makes all the difference. Those memories are what shape me. They give me something to cling to when the storms in my life feel too great to overcome. They are my rock, my foundation and my strength. There is nothing more beautiful than a tear-soaked goodbye or a desperate last hug. The things that make these parting moments so painful are the memories attached to each person. No matter what happens or where we go, those memories and the echo they leave in our hearts make us stronger each day.

If you ask most kids what matters to them they might say money, or having the nicest pair of shoes or any other material possessions. Ask me (or any military child) and their answer will be Family, friends and their memories.

I can proudly say my association with the military has made me the person I am today. Because of the tough times, I know how to lace up my boots and Soldier on. Because of the good times, I know the importance of Family. I have a deeper understanding of the cost of freedom and an overflowing sense of love for my country and the people within it. The military has made me grateful for everything, not only what our beloved Soldiers do, but also everything their Families sacrifice. I encourage all military Families to hug each other a little tighter and continue to do everything they can to support our Soldiers. We are not alone — we are all one Family — a military Family.