By Elaine Sanchez, American Forces Press ServiceOctober 17, 2011
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Oct. 14, 2011 -- Two staunch military family advocates today spoke on behalf of military children, citing the challenges and stresses they endure to an audience of child support professionals from across the nation.
Speaking at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's national conference here, Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno noted the importance of mentorship and support for military children as they navigate the frequent moves, deployments and separations brought on by more than a decade of war.
"As a teacher and a military mom and grandmother, I have seen firsthand what a big difference a great mentor can make in the lives of our nation's military children," Biden told the audience of juvenile justice and child protection professionals. Her son, Beau, serves in the Delaware Army National Guard.
Biden cited a new program that's already making a difference in military children's lives. Earlier this week, she explained, the Justice Department announced a partnership with the Defense Department to award $20 million to organizations that provide mentoring programs and services to children with a military parent. Among the award recipients are the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the National 4-H Council.
"These mentors and so many other individuals and groups across this country are showing all Americans that there are countless ways to help our military families -- some large and many small, but all important," Biden noted.
Last year, President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to work together on a government-wide approach to supporting military families, Biden said, and "this mentoring initiative represents a powerful response to that call to action."
It's also a fitting example of agencies "Joining Forces," she said. First Lady Michelle Obama and Biden launched that initiative earlier this year to encourage all sectors of society to honor and support military families.
Military children need and deserve this support, she said, as they endure unique challenges and stresses, from multiple moves and schools to deployments and separations.
Biden recalled meeting a teenager whose father had deployed to Afghanistan with the Illinois National Guard. The girl gave Biden an essay she had written about that deployment.
In her essay, the teen said a teacher called her to the office one day. Her first thought was something bad had happened to her dad. "When I got to the office," she wrote, "I saw my mom was there, and she was crying, which made me start crying right away. I asked what was wrong, and she told me that my dad was okay, but we had lost four of our soldiers. I remember crying for days."
The teen and her brother, Biden noted, were the only military children in that school.
"Unfortunately, their story is not unique," she said. "There are approximately 700,000 children throughout the country who have parents serving in the National Guard and reserves -- and so many of them do not live anywhere near a military base.
"As a mom of a National Guardsman," she added, "I know just how important it is for a teacher, a counselor or a fellow classmate to reach out and show support and understanding."
Biden encouraged the audience to reach out to military families.
"Think about how you can take part in bringing some stability, guidance and friendship into their lives," she said.
Odierno echoed Biden's call to support military children and their families. The military has shouldered the burden of multiple deployments and separations for years now, he said, which affects the family members just as it affects the service members.
The nation must maintain its commitment to these families, the general said, especially the families of the fallen and those who are caring for service members wounded in combat.
Odierno noted that more than 4,500 soldiers have died while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 32,000 have been injured, with 9,000 of those requiring long-term care.
"The one thing I'm always concerned about with these factors -- repetitive deployments, casualties, death -- is the impact it has on our children," he said. "What are we doing to help them to cope? What are we doing to help them to overcome?"
Programs such as the Defense and Justice departments mentorship partnership will help to ensure military children adapt and excel in the years ahead, Odierno said, but still more help is needed.
"We need engagement from organizations not normally involved in military issues," the general said, "to help us, to provide us expertise, to fill the gaps between where our government programs are able to help our families and where they cannot."
Community support also is needed, Odierno noted, particularly for reserve forces that are geographically dispersed throughout the nation. "We need to be able to reach out to them, to reach out to their children to help them," he said.
Odierno said he'd also like to forge a relationship with nonprofit organizations that support military families so there's better access and coordination, and to other departments and agencies that provide care for children to ensure they're incorporating military family members in their programs.
The general noted his career, which spans 35 years, has spurred 23 moves. His oldest child, he added, attended four different high schools. "First and foremost," he said, "we need continued assistance to school-age children to support seamless transitions between schools."
While much work remains to be done, Odierno said he's grateful for the support Americans have so freely given over this past decade of war. "I've been so impressed by the generosity of American people, that [they] want to reach out, they want to help, they want to assist," he said. "They want to do whatever they can to help our families."
Meetings such as this one, he told the audience, will help to channel this goodwill toward families and "organize ourselves so we can take that generosity, that commitment, that willingness to help … to get it synchronized and integrated so we can provide best care for all of our children," he said.