By Sgt. Marc LoiFebruary 19, 2013
MESA, Ariz. (Feb. 19, 2013) -- As dusk falls upon this desert town on an unusually warm Saturday night, creating a purple hue along the skyline that leaves out-of-town visitors in awe, 18-year-old Katie Harris sits in an empty hotel conference room preparing for the next day's work. Just moments earlier, she'd said goodbye to a group of about a dozen younger teenagers -- all with parents either already deployed or about to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
With a quiet moment and time for herself -- she'd been working since about 6 a.m. -- Harris begins to plan. Yet, unlike the majority of her friends, the high school senior isn't planning Saturday-night escapades and outings. Harris, a volunteer with the Army Reserve, is planning for the next day's events as one of the leaders of the Youth, Leadership, Education and Development Program, or YLEAD, for the 200th Military Police Command.
Developed as a means to give voice to the thousands of children of Army Reserve Soldiers, YLEAD serves as a medium of communications between young family members and military leaders. It ensures children who have to bear the burden of a parent going to war understand the larger reasons for their parents' absence. The program also educates commanders on the unique challenges military children face.
Harris is the only 200th Military Police Command representative on the Army Reserve's Child, Youth & School Services' Army Reserve Teen Panel, which allows teens an opportunity to develop effective strategies and implement solutions for issues they face as military youth.
Throughout the year, Harris and other teen panel members plan and execute initiatives in support of Army Reserve youth and their families.
Herself a military child -- she was born on Fort Bragg, N.C., and has a birth certificate proving she is an "82nd baby" -- Harris quickly volunteered to be a leader with the program after attending a workshop last summer, working with other military children to address their needs and concerns as well as help them through the deployment process.
"When I was a child and my dad had to deploy, it definitely didn't occur to me that there were others like me," said Harris, whose father deployed to Bosnia when she was a child. "I definitely saw a little bit of a younger me in them. I was an only child, too, so it was just me. So, I definitely understand what they're going through."
Yet, it isn't just the experiences themselves that drove her to volunteer. Even as a young child, after both parents had left the military and resided in Southern California, Harris' parents took her along with them as they volunteered for the local military parades. This, along with both parents being commanders of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters, instilled in Harris a sense of volunteerism that is second-nature, she said.
"It's not something that I picked or [begrudgingly] volunteer for," Harris said. "I enjoy doing it."
Volunteerism, in this case, often means flying around the U.S. talking to other teens during the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program that helps family members better prepare for deployments before, during and after they happen. Though the job comes without pay, Harris said the joy is in connecting other children with one another and ensuring they know there are others like them during the loneliest times of deployment.
"The challenges kids face have always been the same," she said. "It's learning to be without a parent and to cope with that -- but it's also about being resilient and making it through the deployment."
Another additional challenge for military children, especially those whose parents serve in the Army Reserve, is that they are often removed from a system of support that children of active-duty military children often enjoy.
Despite more than a decade of war, a cultural gap between the military and the civilian population it serves still exists. As a result, even those who are well-intentioned often lack an understanding of what it means to be supportive.
"I have a friend who golfs all the time and just as I don't understand that, she wouldn't understand me," Harris said. "Programs [like these] help teens connect with those who understand them."
More than giving children the opportunity to reach out to peers to understand them, the program Harris volunteers for also helps give teenagers a voice, she said. This is especially important not only because it helps identify the issues teenagers face, but because despite the stigmas of being teenagers, each child has something to offer and can often provide a perspective that adults sometimes do not see.
"I think it's really important because they can go from being kids and letting off steam to being serious if given the opportunity," Harris said. "But it's more than that, it's also ensuring that when our parents are gone, that we are the next generation to do the same things they were doing and to make things better."
These perspectives, along with an almost-instinctive ability of knowing when to stand back and watch the group and when to step in and be a leader, make Harris seem older than her 18 years. Yet, her development into a young adult and leader wasn't happenstance. Harris got here through years of being a military child, along with the heartbreak of sometimes being without her father.
"When I came back from my first deployment, Katie didn't know who I was," said her father, Jeff, who now works as an Army civilian for the 200th Military Police Command. "Intellectually, she knew who I was, but we had to learn to get to know each other again.
"That was a big shock. That always has a significant impact, as you go and come, you have to reintroduce yourself -- the readjustment period can be smooth or hard, but it takes time. It's not an automatic given that you insert yourself back into someone's life and it's going to be smooth," he added.
That her father understood what deployments meant on the family also helped the younger Harris cope, said her mother, Marilyn, also an Army veteran.
"We've been really fortunate," her mother said. "Jeff's never asserted himself in a domineering kind of way [after deployments.] He just moved into his place and started building as a family again."
The understanding that relationships take work, said Harris, is something she learned from her parents -- and be it a familial or romantic relationship, successes require communications -- a fact she wants to pass on to other teenagers as they face the same situations she once faced.
This particular evening, on a conference call with parents, Harris ended the conversation with a quick "I love you" and the promise that she would call them later. When a visitor commented that her parents seemed in love and that her family was beautiful, the teenager let out a sigh as she reflected.
"It didn't just happen," she said. "It takes a lot of work -- I saw it in them, and I saw it in the three of us. I learned from my father and mother that your communication is your relationship. If you want to be successful, you've got to communicate."
Despite these surprising bits of wisdom, Harris said there are things she still isn't sure about. Long-term goals, as an example, are in question, though she said she definitely knows she wants to attend college.
"I am 18. I have all these experiences, and I am excited to put them to good use," said Harris as she thumbed her phone. "The only thing I know for sure is that I want to go to college. I am not sure what I want to major in or if I want to be in the military. I just want to help. I am not sure about going down in the history books, but I know if I just make a difference in one person's life, it'll make me happy."
Altruism and a sense of community and obligation, said her father, are things he and Marilyn aimed at instilling in Harris. At 18, she's already helped them achieve that goal.
"We've always taught her to live in the world rather than on the world," he said. "It excites us that she's taking on our values and going out into the world and making them her own."
"A parent's job is to ensure their kids fly," Harris' mother said. "This just validates the hard work that we put in for the last 18 years."
Having already taken flight at such a young age, Harris sometimes misses out on the normal teenagers' activities and rites-of-passage milestones that her peers are known for, yet the teenager said she wouldn't have it another way. Being a volunteer with the Army Reserve is something that was bred into her -- something that's a part of her, she said.
On a recent Saturday, perhaps an all-too-perfect day for a high-school senior to prom-dress shop, Harris was in another hotel room lobby, getting ready to talk to other teenagers about her own experiences as well as help them through the process of deployment.
"On a normal Saturday, if I weren't doing this, I wouldn't know what to do," she said, laughing.
Yet, Harris hasn't quite forgotten what it means to be a teenager and still manages a network of friends with whom she can grow and on whom she can lean on. As she prepared schedules and lesson plans for the next day, Harris was looking ahead to Sunday evening and her flight back to Southern California.
"One of my friends is turning 18," Harris said. "When I get off the plane, I am going to put on a nice dress and go see her."