The New Children of War

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Matt Brashears / King County Journal / AP

Six-year-old Melissa Gorba nestles into her father's side as he listens to instructions at the Kent Armory in Kent, Wash.

When Lt. Col. Eric Durr, a member of the New York State Army National Guard, left his Albany, N.Y., home in April 2004 bound for Iraq, his wife placed a framed photograph of him in the dining room. Two years later, when she deployed to Iraq also with the Army Reserves, Durr placed a photo of her, Lt. Col. Heather Brownell, in the same spot. For their kids, Steve, now 13, and Stephanie, 16, the war in Iraq is more than just flickering images on a television screen. To them, it means a life of constantly shifting family dynamics and stresses — what they must now accept as the "new normal." Referred to as "suddenly military kids," or SMKs, Steve and Stephanie are part of a growing group of American youngsters under the age of 18, whose lives are directly and dramatically impacted when a parent is deployed from the Reserves or the National Guard.

Unlike military brats, the term affectionately given to the children of military personnel who live on base, SMKs are not raised in the military culture, because their parents aren't on active duty. So, they don't have the automatic support of peers or teachers who necessarily understand the sudden pressures placed on them when a parent deploys. "They think they are the only one in the situation. They don't know anyone else who has a parent sent away," says Theresa Ferrari, Ohio project director of Operation: Military Kids, a national group founded in 2004 that organizes activities in 34 states to connect SMKs and help them cope. "But there really are a lot of people in the same situation." According to the most complete Department of Defense data for April 2007, more than 60,000 Guards and reservists who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq were parents of at least one child.

Research suggests that military children fare worse when a soldier-parent is deployed for a combat tour. According to a new study published in the Aug. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, when an enlisted parent left home, the rates of confirmed child abuse and neglect rose more than 40%, at the hands of the parent who stayed behind. "These findings were consistent regardless of parents' age, rank or ethnic background," says Deborah Gibbs, the study's lead author, "indicating that deployments are difficult for all kinds of families."

Although the JAMA study targeted the children and families of active Army soldiers, not reservists, Gibbs maintains that the need for more support programs for all families undergoing the strain of deployment is evident. "To my mind, it makes perfect sense to assume that families of Guard and reserve members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan experience as much stress as do regular forces." And the military is taking notice, funding not only the study conducted by Gibbs, but also a variety of programs, some in partnership with community groups, to help children and their families impacted by the war.

As Ferrari explains, older children are tasked with increased family responsibilities, from yard work to looking after younger siblings and providing increased emotional support to the remaining parent. Some children struggle academically when the parent who helped them with their homework is deployed. And for the remaining spouse, it becomes harder to keep up with the usual routines, like shuttling the kids to soccer practices, scout meetings and ballet classes. And then there is the constant fear that the deployed parent may be injured or killed.

Explaining to the youngest children why a parent is leaving home is often a difficult task. That's why the military paired up with Elmo and friends for a Sesame Street DVD called "Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families Cope with Military Deployment." More than 250,000 copies have been distributed to families since it was released in August 2006, and a follow-up study conducted by the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University reports that the video helped kids interact more constructively with their families, and helped parents feel less depressed about their spouse's deployment.

"It's different for every family," says Lt. Col. Durr. "We both have been in Army National Reserves [since] my kids were born," he says of himself and his wife, Heather. "[My kids] are used to mom and dad not being around sometimes." In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, Durr spent four months at Ground Zero in New York City.

Durr and his family are luckier than most — they have a rich network of extended family and friends close by, ready to lend a hand — but Durr's kids still faced many of the same emotional and social strains as other SMKs. "At one point, my wife sent home a bunch of Iraqi money so [Steven] could give it out to the kids at school," says Durr. "He didn't want to. He didn't want to call out attention to the fact that he was different."

Operation: Military Kids aims to alleviate that feeling of estrangement. It hands out "Hero Packs" — backpacks that students in local 4H groups fill with crayons, activity books, and disposable cameras to help military kids keep in contact with their parent overseas. The packs also contain hand-written letters, telling the children how much their families' sacrifices are appreciated.

In summer, the organization runs week-long camps for SMKs aged 9 to 14. In Ohio this year, for the first time, former campers were old enough to come back as counselors, offering a unique perspective and mentorship to a younger generation of SMKs. Life at the Operation: Military Kids camp is like any other summer program; the kids canoe, have sing-alongs around the campfire, and roast marshmallows. But unlike most camps, there are also evening hikes with night-vision goggles, helicopter rides and even visits from top military officials. Ferrari says talk of war isn't programmed into activities but occurs spontaneously during interaction amongst campers. "It comes out at the cabins at night," she says, "or at the craft center you hear them talk about it: 'Hey, my dad is in Iraq too.'"

Family life for Durr and his children returned to a relative normal when mom Heather ended her deployment in June. But coming home was still bittersweet. "It was tough for my wife coming home," says Durr. "When she left she had a 14-year-old daughter. When she returned she had a 16-year-old who wants to spend more time with her friends then her family." As the Durr clan works together to find their old rhythm, Eric Durr can breathe a sigh of relief that he is no longer a single dad juggling roles or competing with an absent wife. "The deployed parent is the hero and the home parent is the heavy," he explains. For now, Stephanie and Steve have two parents at home, and the portraits of Eric and Heather can be retired from their place of honor in the dining room, until further notice.