For all of the discussions and focus on veterans, the assistance, and the studies, one military group has somehow gone relatively unnoticed: children.
Children of military families bear a tremendous burden when parents are deployed and again when they return, yet the resources available to them, their families and their schools are scant.
“There are so many wonderful entities that support our veterans and even their spouses, but we’re the first of its kind whose sole purpose is to advocate and educate on behalf of the children,” said Maria Phillips, founder of the nonprofit Kids Of America's Heroes and its current program manager.
Phillips, herself the daughter of a WWII veteran, started laying the groundwork for K.O.A.H. about two years ago, though the organization is just recently taking form and undertaking the work she envisions.
“We’ve been at war since the ‘90s; that’s a long time and people don’t think about that,” said Anna Recine, a board member and consultant to K.O.A.H. who works as a Spanish teacher in Clinton.
Recine added: “We’ve been in the Middle East a long, long time. … We don’t know how many kids it’s affecting.”
Recine has also taught middle school and high school in Waterford and New London, with its higher concentration of military families. K.O.A.H. refers to the children as “MilKids” and says on its website that there are 4 million MilKids in the U.S., including in every school district in the country.
The challenge is, school staff might have no idea a child’s parent is deployed. And considering that MilKids move every three years on average, these children are experiencing a lot of upheaval and transition.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a file that followed them?” Recine said. “There’s an academic file, but there isn’t a file with the information that that parent is deployed.”
The child could be suffering from PTSD, or have anxiety, attachment and separation issues. And because many of them don’t know how to talk about it — whether they are too young to adequately voice their fears or are older and more reluctant to speak — it shows up in their behavior.
Teachers and others should be better equipped to read the signs and know how to deal with it, Recine said. Staff is often aware that a child’s parent is deployed and they’re living with grandparents, for example. But that’s it.
“It would be wonderful if we had some talking points about, If you notice these issues, let the school psychologist know,” Recine said.
Recine said she is currently contacting professionals at her school and asking what they have in place and what they can do differently.
Said Phillips: “Children in southeastern Connecticut are more fortunate than the ones who are sprinkled throughout the rest of the state, because they have the support network of other families, the base itself. … But when you step away from the Waterford/New London/Groton area and start heading further into different parts of Connecticut, people are not as familiar with the military.”
Dale Kingsley is a Marriage & Family therapist who owns Trinity Therapeutic Care, LLC in Groton. Kingsley said it’s important to educate school systems and others how to recognize behaviors that children of the military might exhibit.
“Just to have people kind of empathize with what’s going on and see the bigger picture,” Kingsley said. “Don’t just look at the behavior; step back from it and see what may or may not be happening.”
When a parent goes away for an extended period of time, Kingsley said, children can experience Separation Anxiety Disorder. Or they might have an attachment disorder. And of course there is a lot of fear, which can consume a child.
There’s also something called parentification, when the child takes on the role of the missing parent, whether that means ensuring dinner is made on time or simply taking out the trash.
“Then when Mom comes back, that kind of disrupts the structure that’s been created for a temporary time. Kids don’t really understand that things are temporary,” Kingsley said.
A parent’s return is not always joyful, either.
“Sometimes we think, ‘Your parent’s coming home, that’ll be great,” Recine said. “But it could mean, ‘We’ve gotta move again.’ It could be great, or mom or dad could be confined to bed for two to three months until they re-assimilate themselves.”
Recine said she made a mistake early in her career, during the first Gulf War, to approach a teenaged student and say she was there for them if needed. The student became completely flustered, she said.
“I think with a child who’s facing any type of crisis, whether it’s a parent who’s deployed or there’s a death in the family or whatever, it’s ‘tread lightly’ and sometimes let them take the lead,” Recine said. “There’s a way of saying ‘I’m here for you’ without saying ‘I’m here for you because of the situation.’ … Sometimes it’s just to touch base and say, ‘How’s your day going?’“
Ultimately, that’s what K.O.A.H. hopes for: to maintain a child’s privacy and space while giving teachers and others the tools needed to recognize when there might be a problem.
If there is a greater ability to identify these children, Phillips said, that will also allow the organization to to a longitudinal study and follow them to know whether they drop out of school, attend college, attend a technical school and the like.
With the prospect of ramping up forces once again, Phillips said, the need is greater than ever.
“That means more children will be facing this sense of fear and anticipatory grief and loss, and so many emotions that go along with it,” she said. “As more and more troops start going out, we’ll have to deal with a lot more kids falling into the fold.”
For more information: visit K.O.A.H.’s website at www.kidsofamericasheroes.org. You can also send an email to email@example.com or call them at 646-493-0453.
K.O.A.H. also conducts fundraising and will be hosting upcoming events, including a Poker Run on Sept. 30 and a comedy night on Nov. 4.