By Sgt. Marc LoiMarch 3, 2013
MESA, Ariz. (March 3, 2013) -- After their lively game of tag was over, the group of 9- to 15-year-olds reentered the room in which they'd spent the majority of the day. As each child took a seat on the chairs arranged in a circle, the mood in the room darkened. Gone was the gleeful laughter of child's play from just minutes earlier.
Children to Army Reserve Soldiers deployed or about to deploy to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, they'd come from all over the Southwestern United States to attend the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. Aimed at helping Army Reserve family members cope with the challenges of deployments, the program also seeks to help the children of Army Reserve Soldiers better transition as they prepare to spend nearly a year of their young lives without the people who matter most to them.
As they eyed the circle, reluctant to open up with total strangers about their feelings, 12-year-old Thomas Watson began, opening the floodgates of emotions for others to follow.
"My dad has been gone for almost a year now, and it's been hard," he said. "That person who's gone, that's your buddy -- and it's really hard to be without your buddy. I miss watching shows with him."
As soon as Watson finished his sentence, other hands shot up, with each child taking Watson's story as a cue to share theirs.
Sitting next to him were the Chacon sisters -- 15-year-old Angalica and 11-year-old Jasmine. Like the majority of the children in the room, the Chacons are preparing to live a year without their father, a prospect Angalica said saddens her.
"He's never missed any of my birthdays. Even when he was doing training in California, he came back for my birthday," she said. "He's going to miss my 16th birthday, and it would mean the world to me if he could be there."
She wasn't alone. Around the room, children nodded at the possibility of milestones missed and what it meant that the people most important to them would be gone for those occasions.
"When they come back, they don't know what you're into now -- it makes you sad knowing they missed a part of your life," said Jaycee Martinez, 15.
Yet, even as they looked ahead at the milestones that will be missed, the children also looked back and fondly recalled the memories they each had with their family.
"He was always so fun," said Julie Wilson, 10, who'd come to the event with her twin sisters Katie and Kelly. "He'd take me and my sisters to laser tag and he was just so nice, so I am sad."
As if by instinct, Kelly reached over to give the 10-year-old a hug and rub on the back.
"Julie, he'll be back," Kelly said as she pulled the child closer to her. "Don't be sad."
At just 15, Kelly and her twin sister have already learned the importance of being nurturing and comforting to their younger sister -- mainly out of a sibling's desire to protect, but also because with the absence of a parent, the sisters feel it to be their responsibility to take care of their younger siblings.
"We try to hang out with each other and comfort each other more," said Kelly as Julie leaned on her shoulder. "We tell her jokes and try to be there for her, especially when she gets sad."
It isn't just the Wilsons who are learning the importance of leaning onto one another. The Ledesmas -- especially oldest brother Florencio -- have also learned the importance of leaning on one another, with the older siblings reaching out to help the younger ones.
Draping his arm over his sister, 9-year-old Florena, the 13-year-old, in a sing-song voice, demonstrated how he and 12-year-old sister Florissa, comfort their youngest sibling.
"We give Florena hugs like this and let her play with her favorite teddy bear," he said as the room reacted with laughter.
Angalica, the 15-year-old who will spend her 16th birthday without her father, said she also feels an obligation to reach out and comfort her siblings, despite also struggling with the absence of her father.
"They get really sad when they hear sad songs," Angalica said. "What I try to do is comfort them and remind them that it will be okay and that dad will come home. My sisters like pillow fights, and sometimes, they hit me in the face and we all have a bit of fun, and it takes their minds off our dad for a while.
"I've been wanting to cheer them up for a while now," she continued. "It's just an instinct of wanting to keep my sisters safe and happy and not wanting them to be sad."
This show of love, even when coming from older siblings still young enough to be within their age group, is much appreciated. As Angalica told stories of her desires and efforts to cheer her younger sisters up, other elder siblings in the room nodded. Across from her, the oldest of the Ledesma siblings, Florencio, crouched down as he put his hands to his face. In the room, the only audible sound was that of the 13-year-old's soft cry.
His sisters reached for his back, and as if taking his place and seeking to repay him for the comfort he'd provided them, patted his back.
Despite this conscious effort of being one another's keeper, childhood is still full of uncertainties and hurt, the majority coming from their own peer group.
"They sometimes say mean things," said Thomas, the child who earlier had begun the dialogue. "They tell me that at least they had a dad and I didn't have one."
The others broke out in smiles -- not the happy kind often seen on the faces of children -- but sadder ones signifying that they identified with him. As the room grew quiet again, Jasmine Chacon chimed in.
"Sometimes they say cruel things. They'd say that [our dad] technically walked out on us," she said before ending in a pregnant pause.
Her sister, Angalica, picked up where the 11-year-old left off, recounting stories of well-meaning peers telling her they understood what she was going through because their dads had to leave them for a week on business trips.
"They try to be in your shoes and tell you that their dad's away for a week," she said. "Well that's a week, we're going without our dad or mom for a year -- so they don't know what it's like -- plus, we have to deal with the fact that we don't know how traumatized or scarred our parents are going to be."
In spite of these challenges, the children agreed that a year without their parents will make them stronger, partly because they have to be resilient, but also because without one parent, the other will depend on them to take care of themselves and their siblings -- allowing them to grow up quicker than most other children.
"There is no time to be a kid anymore because we have to get our responsibilities done and help out with our siblings and do school work," said Jasmine, pausing for a second to reflect before she continued. "After that, there's just no time to be a kid anymore."
Events like the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program seek to help children like Jasmine not only be children again, but also offers a forum in which each child can have his or her voice heard, and to make friends with those who are going through the same challenges as they are, said Katie Harris, the volunteer youth coordinator who, as a younger military child, saw her father deploy to Bosnia.
"I was the only child," she said. "I didn't know there were others like me. This not only teaches them to be resilient, but also gives them an opportunity to reach out to others just like them."
Their conversations over, the children gathered outside for a break. As they opened the door to the conference room, the bright Arizona sun hit their faces, once again lighting them up with color and life. They raced one another up a tiny hill where they came together for a group picture, laughing and giggling as they pushed and tugged at one another -- and just for a moment, the children of Army Reserve Soldiers got to be children again.