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November 6, 2012

STANCZYKIEWICZ: In honor of military kids

INDIANAPOLIS — While Hoosiers in the armed services become veterans in the military, their children quickly become veterans in resiliency. They learn to deal with change, and they yearn for more stability.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, 44 percent of active duty military personnel are parents. In Indiana, more than 18,000 children have a parent in the armed services. While that is just 1 percent of all Hoosier youth, Indiana’s military children face added challenges because they are scattered across the state instead of living together in a military community.

“Military children who are geographically isolated feel that people don’t understand, and that sometimes can be really lonely,” said Kathy Broniarczyk, director of outreach for the Military Family Research Institute (MFRI) at Purdue University. “They hear comments like, ‘Oh, isn’t that cool. Your dad gets to carry a gun and shoot people.’ Well, if my dad is shooting at people, then someone is probably shooting at him. That type of thing can be unsettling for military youth.”

Trevor Lear’s dad served in combat in the Air Force.

“I wasn’t sure if he was going to come back or not,” recalled Lear, who is a sophomore at Purdue. “For a lot of [military kids] that’s one thing that we all share — that concern that the last look that we gave them as they turned and walked out the door is really the last look.”  

A Boston University study revealed that military children can experience higher levels of anxiety, depression and withdrawal. In an MFRI survey, military youth described missing their parents, worrying about their parents, not sleeping well and fighting more with their siblings. Importantly, MFRI stated, “While military culture promotes independence and an ‘I can do it’ attitude, asking for help may be considered a weakness by some military members and their families.”

Activities developed by Operation Military Kids can help schools and youth organizations help military youth. For example, Greenwood Middle School in Johnson County started Military Kids in School Support (MKISS), an after-school club for military children. School counselor Connie Poston said military youth meet weekly to talk about their military parents and issues they are facing at home.

“They felt alone,” Poston said, but now “they get to meet other kids and get someone to connect with. A lot of them deal with stress due to being worried about their parent or the added responsibilities put on them while going to a one-parent household. Things come and go at home, but at school we try to be something constant for them.”

Lear said a sense of stability is one of two things military kids need most. The other: support for the troops.

“It’s awesome to see the support our nation has been giving to our troops,” Lear said. “There’s a lot of pride, my own pride that my dad was over there serving, and to be able to hear other people cheering them on and supporting them felt in some way like they were doing that for me.”

MFRI reports that military youth also acquire several positive behaviors. Military kids develop maturity, become more flexible and learn how to handle increased independence. Military youth also tend to do well in school.

In addition, military youth are proud of their parents, know what war means and take on more responsibility at home. They want the rest of us to know, “We serve, too.”

“The first thing you need to do is just listen and be available for them,” Broniarczyk advised. “Their [nondeployed] parent might not be as available to them as they were when the service member was still at home. So listen, and then be there to support that child.”

Military service also can bring parents and children closer together, a lesson Lear learned through his dad’s deployment. “He was supposed to leave on his birthday,” Lear remembered. “Every single day we went out and played catch. I really cherished that time with him, and in the end that was a good thing for our relationship.”

While the nation prepares to celebrate Veterans Day, military children like Trevor Lear also look forward to celebrating Father’s Day, or Mother’s Day and especially their birthday.

— Bill Stanczykiewicz is President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at iyi@iyi.org.

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