Military Kids Look to Extracurricular Activities to Cope With Parents' Deployment

Support services for kids of parents who are deployed in the military

Ask 9-year old Valerie Gonzalez of Alhambra, Calif., about her father's job, and she flashes a toothless smile.

"I like it. My dad knows how to protect me," she said of Army Master Sgt. Juan Gonzalez, a member of the California Army National Guard, who recently returned from a tour of Kosovo. "Daddy protects California."

But Valerie's mother, Denise Gonzalez, recalled that the first-grader had a different reaction when her father initially deployed.

"Some of the kids in Valerie's class would say, 'Your dad's never coming home,'" the mother recalled with tears welling in her eyes. "She would just go into her room and cry, 'I want Daddy! I want Daddy!'"

Valerie and her sister, Breanna, 5, are among the 1.7 million Americans under the age of 18 who have a parent serving in the military, according to a White House estimate. Of these, about 900,000 have had one or both parents deployed multiple times.

And with President Obama's 2011 budget containing $33 billion for a troop surge in Afghanistan and almost $160 billion for ongoing military support, children of service members continue to bear the stresses of deployment.

Help Through Extracurricular Activities

For the Gonzalez family and thousands of others, the deployment of a parent has a widespread impact -- and many times, tighter finances mean that kids feel the burden.

"When the reserve guard deploys, sometimes their military pay isn't the same as their civilian pay, so the family budget tightens up," said Linda Davidson, founder and executive director of Our Military Kids. "Oftentimes, one of the first things that has to come out of the family budget are extracurricular activities for children."

Our Military Kids, a non-profit group, is working to fill that financial void by awarding grants to children of deployed National Guard and Reserve service members. Since its inception in 2004, the group has utilized federal funding to award more than $5.7 million to almost 15,000 children for participation in extracurricular activities, such as tutoring, fine arts programs and sports.

Valerie Gonzalez is among the first recipients of this generosity. This week, she and her family traveled to Washington, D.C., where she was named one of four "Military Kids of the Year" and received a grant to support an extracurricular activity for $500 or up to six months of a program tuition. Valerie is using her grant to take tap dance lessons.

"It's not a substantial grant, but it might make the difference of a child being able to participate in an activity or not," Davidson said.

Extracurricular activities help put military children into a regular routine and allow them to focus on something positive, rather than on their parent's deployment. Such activities also provide the children with a skill or talent to share with the parent once he or she returns home, she said.

Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, said the extracurricular activities are an essential part of the coping process because they help kids recognize and process their feelings about a parent's deployment.

While military kids are well-attuned to their parents' challenges, they might be afraid of sharing their feelings and further burdening the at-home parent, she said.

But placing a child in an activity or support group -- especially one that includes fellow military kids -- allows them to share their feelings in a constructive way.

"Giving kids a chance to just think about other things for a while is a very good thing, but I also think that there's something very helpful about being with other people who you know really understand what you're going through," she said.

And it's this constructive support which military children need, said Davidson.

While not the daughter of a service member, Davidson's own experiences as a parent helped her to understand the situation in which military children find themselves.

"I have grown children. I knew how important extracurricular activities were in their lives," she said. "I wanted to be able to help other families be able to provide that for their children while they're serving our country and protecting my family."

Mixed Emotions

Children who have a parent deployed overseas to a war zone like Afghanistan or Iraq often feel a great deal of pride for their parents' work -- but even such feelings of patriotism are confusing, said Michelle Joyner of the National Military Family Foundation.

"As a child, it's very difficult to reconcile [that patriotism] with, you know, 'You're not here to teach me how to drive,' or the disappointment of not being able to go to a father-daughter dance," she said. "We're assigning children to reconcile very adult emotions in their young bodies."

MacDermid Wadsworth said it's common for children of military parents to experience stress during a parent's deployment, and the coping abilities of the at-home parent heavily influences their well-being.

"The evidence that we have suggests that many children experience a sense of anxiety and they worry about their deployed parents," she said, adding that most children do not require clinical treatment as part of their coping process.

Though researchers do not have concrete statistics to compare children's effects from Operation Enduring Freedom to wars of eras past, some believe that the current military conflicts might have the most widespread number of children who have been impacted by a family member's deployment.

"Anecdotally, we know that there are much more children that have been impacted by these wars than by the previous wars, based on the number of dependents," said Joyner, adding that siblings of young, deployed servicemen are equally as involved in the coping process.

She said new ways of sharing information -- such as the installation of embedded reporters and a quicker modern news cycle -- has exposed today's children to more ongoing war coverage than in any other era, a change that has drastically increased demand for support services for military children.

"Children were exposed to a lot more day-to-day information about the wars," she said, "[and] when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started ... we were hearing a lot from parents saying, 'Give me resources to help my kid.'"

Denise Gonzalez understands the mixed feelings her daughters now experience.

"It's his choice to be in the military, it's my choice to be his wife," she said. "But the kids have no choice. It's their uncontrolled situation."

'It's Just Quiet'

Jasmine Warren, 13, a Douglasville, Ga., native, is very familiar with deployments.

Her father, Army Staff Sgt. Stephen Warren, twice has served overseas with the National Guard -- once in Iraq, and most recently, in a 15-month pre-departure training and deployment to Afghanistan. He said he might be sent on a third deployment within the next two years.

But despite her father's frequent tours of duty, Jasmine said each deployment still requires a major transition for her and her family.

"Everything just stops. When you walk into your house, you expect to see that person there, but then there's nothing," she said. "And it's really quiet the first few days. It's just quiet."

To cope with her father's absence, Jasmine fills her time with extracurricular and service activities. The straight-A student, who participates in her school's newspaper and the Spanish club, has also been involved in gymnastics for almost 12 years.

But in these activities, her father is never far from mind: Jasmine wrote a special article in her school's Wildcat News about children of deployed servicemen, and she has volunteered on initiatives to collect phone cards for American troops and raise scholarship money for children of fallen soldiers.

Jasmine's mother, Nicole, said her husband's deployments have forced her and Jasmine to learn to share their military family member with the rest of the nation.

"I tell every person: I don't wish this on anyone. But I do what I have to do because of my husband's decision to serve his country," she said. "It's hard, but you know, you give yourself two or three days to cry, you pick yourself up, you go forth and do what you have to do."

The 'Month of the Military Child'

April has been the "Month of the Military Child" since its Department of Defense designation in 1986.

Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden this year marked the occasion with a message of encouragement to children of deployed service members. The pair appeared in an April 7 video posting on the White House Web site, in which they acknowledged the sacrifices which military kids must make as they share a service member parent with the nation.

"Every day, these extraordinary young people shoulder responsibilities and worries that make them wise beyond their years," said Biden, whose son, Beau, is a member of the Delaware National Guard.

The message comes two months after Obama's January announcement that the president's 2011 budget includes $8.8 billion to support military families -- an increase of more than 3 percent from last year's fiscal budget.

The funding allotted $1.9 billion to military family counseling and support services, as well as $1.3 billion for military child care and $14 million for housing and youth programs.

"As a grateful nation, it is our sacred responsibility to stand by our military children, just as they and their families stand by us," Obama said in the video. "President Obama is committed to ensuring that this administration does everything it can to support our military children."

'A Moment to Be Tougher'

While her father served in Kosovo, Valerie kept his memory alive at home.

In addition to creating a bulletin board about Kosovo at her school, Valerie spearheaded a school-wide adopt-a-soldier program to send items to overseas troops.

The first-grader also frequently visited Juan Gonzalez's mother -- who fought cancer -- in the hospital to provide support during Gonzalez's deployment.

Tragedy struck the family in October 2009 when, on the final flight of his deployment, Gonzalez's mother died. The Gonzalez family met Gonzalez for his arrival in the United States and went directly to begin funeral preparations -- a situation that made Denise Gonzalez appreciate the lessons learned during his deployment.

"I think it's a moment to be tougher, and I wanted to set the example to my girls," she said. "I wanted them to remember this time to let them know their mom isn't scared."

But Gonzalez's hopes for his daughters are a bit simpler.

"You know, when we're across the land and we see what other children go through, [it's important] to know that our children are safe," he said.

"And as far as what I can do, [it] is just [to] guide them along, to [let them] be what they can be and know what this country has to offer."

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