By Elizabeth M. LorgeOctober 10, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 10, 2007) - The nearly-two million military children in America were a special focus of Tuesday's Family Forum at the Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting.
According to Army and advocacy experts, they need special attention and understanding during this time of repeated deployments and persistent conflict.
"The only way we've been able to make it as an institution through these last very challenging six years is because of the commitment of Army Families to each other. Spouses helping spouses. Kids helping kids," said Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, who said a few words during the program. "But we are in uncharted waters when you think about it: six years of deployment. This places demands on our Families that really were not contemplated over the previous 25-30 years."
Patty Shinseki, wife of retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, former Army chief of staff, serves on the Military Child Coalition Board of Directors and calls this the "new normal." She said military children are brave, proud, strong and patriotic, but that the cycle of deployments, injury and death is traumatic for children and that their caregivers must be aware they express their emotions and grief differently.
According to Vicki Johnson, a social worker and an advice columnist in the "Fort Campbell Courier," parents should expect crying, acting out, depression and isolation in children. Toddlers and young children may refuse to sleep alone, while teenagers may engage in drug and alcohol abuse and other risky behaviors.
The top five problems she sees are sleeping and eating difficulties, worry and anxiety, concern for their caregiver at home and worry that the deployed parent will be killed or injured.
Ms. Johnson said discussion groups that allow children to vent and talk are very helpful, as are education on stress and coping mechanisms and conflict-resolution skills. She also suggested getting children involved in drama, arts and crafts and other activities.
One successful program the Army is considering standardizing was started by Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Wash. According to Dr. David Callies, the program's founder and director, Army experts train local school counselors, educators and even students to help military children from kindergarten through high school deal with deployments.
They help children of deployed parents identify and cope with their feelings and build a problem-solving team. They find things the children can do well, and things they can do to feel better.
Dr. Callies reported that the most challenging times of the day for children with deployed parents usually are bedtime, during recess and right after school because they are getting the most information from their peers at these times.
Mrs. Shinseki also pointed out that children who don't have easy access to a large installation with all its accompanying support networks are especially vulnerable to emotional wounds. This is increasingly common in the war on terrorism with the important role played by the National Guard and Reserve, and the many active-duty Families who leave installations to stay with relatives during deployments.
"By caring for our children, we take care of their parents, who receive assurances that their children are happy, healthy and well-cared for," she said. "This, in turn, allows servicemembers to focus on and carry out their difficult missions with precision and without distraction."