As Mom and Dad Deploy, Kids Struggle to Cope

For the 700,000 children of military families, the war brings an extra strain.

ByErin Hayes

July 24, 2007 — -- Jeri Yingling is an energetic, no-nonsense mother of four. She is married to a Fort Hood, Texas, soldier -- Lt. Col Paul Yingling -- who has been deployed to Iraq twice and to Bosnia before that.

Jeri has handled it well -- even giving birth to one of her children while her husband was deployed.

The toughest days, she says, come when he is in a trouble spot and communications are cut off. "Phone communications would just stop. I would be talking every day and all of a sudden there would be nothing. And you would just have to know that, because there wasn't a knock at the door, everything was OK."

That attitude has gotten her children through all their father's deployments, but it has not been easy for them, especially 11-year old Megan. "Megan feels everything stronger," her mother says. "She takes everything to heart."

Just before his last deployment, Paul came up to read to Megan before she fell asleep. "Daddy was leaving," Megan explains, "and I remember, I was going to bed and he was like, 'Oh, Meg, it's OK,' and he was reading a book and it was like I couldn't believe he was leaving."

Megan's voice drops to a whisper as she thinks back to that evening. "I remember that really well. I remember that was really bad." She looks away, whispering almost to herself. "That was really bad."

Her older siblings, A.J., 14, and Katie, 17, are more circumspect. They have grown used to the deployments and fully expect more to come. Their father, who is back home now, spends much of his time training for the next one. And it looks as if it will occur about the time Katie graduates from high school next spring.

"It is tough," she says, with a wistful smile. "I'm the oldest and the first to graduate, so I think it would be nice for him to be there, but it's another sacrifice. And we're kind of used to it."

"You're constantly kind of gauging their emotional level," explains Jeri, as the four children (the youngest is Will) zip around her in their kitchen, grabbing breakfast and getting ready for their day.

Jeri has made it her top priority to know how the children are handling the ups and downs, setbacks and disappointments of the continuing deployment cycles.

"Especially with the multiple, multiple deployments again and again, you just don't even have time to recover," she says. "It's so important to keep track of where your kids are and how they're handling all the stress that's going on. Because so easily, I've seen, so easily things can slip. Kids can go into crisis mode, and if you're so busy with everything else that's going on, you won't be aware of it until something tragic has happened."

So she makes sure her children are involved in all the things that interest them, and that they focus their attention on the positive. For A.J., it's lacrosse. Megan is a rock-climber, Will is a gymnast. Katie excels in horsemanship and is very busy with leadership activities at her high school.

She strongly believes the way to get through a deployment is to be involved. "The biggest thing is to stay active, because if you just sit home, you're going to think about it more," Katie explained.

Mary Keller agrees. She is the executive director of the Military Child Education Coalition, a group formed to reach out to military children, including those in the National Guard and Reserves. (For more information contact:

Right now, there are close to 700,000 children in the United States with at least one parent deployed, according to the American Psychological Association. And many are going through a second, or even third deployment, Keller says. "What that means for a child is maybe the parent was deployed the first time when the child was 5 or 6, and then the parent deploys again when they're 7 or 8. And so both the parent and the child are missing large amounts of time together."

The coalition has created workshops for parents, counselors and teachers to help them understand what children go through during deployment. Understanding that, insists Keller, is essential.

"A child whose parent has served needs to know that the sacrifice that family has made is worth it, and that they're supported," Keller says.

Too often, she believes, that sacrifice gets overlooked -- or ignored. It doesn't take much to lift a military child's spirits, she says. Even small gestures, like including a military child in neighborhood activities or asking how they're doing, can help.

"That's what will keep us from losing a generation of kids. Saying, you know, wherever you are, however old you are, we're listening to you, we're paying attention to you," Keller says.

And talk of losing a generation is no exaggeration. In the Killeen, Texas, school district, where more than half the children have a parent in the military, school counselors are concerned about the effects the long deployment cycles have on their students.

It is particularly noticeable, says high school counselor Diane Guidry, when a child doesn't hear from a parent in Iraq for a while and begins to worry.

"The children act out, they get angry, they get angry at other children," Guidry says. "They start having behavior problems when they hadn't had them. They will cry for no reason."

Counselor Priscilla Flores' concerns grow with each semester. "We have the largest failure rate that we have ever had. And the children have shut down," she says.

It is easy to see the impact of deployments when you walk the school hallways in a military town. Barbara Critchfield, a counselor at Shoemaker High in Killeen, began putting up stars in the hallways a few years ago in recognition of students who had a parent deployed.

She started with 80 stars. There are now 2,000 of them, and more to be posted. "It is for a deployed parent, for a parent that's been there, done that," says Critchfield. Some of the stars represent a second or third deployment for that same student.

At nearby Smith Middle School, students have posted their wishes for a deployed parent on a hall board: "I wish that my Dad will be safe in Iraq" reads one. Others state, "I wish that my Mom doesn't have to go back to war" and "Half my heart is in Iraq."

Military leaders are increasingly worried, too, about the impact of the war on children.

At Fort Hood, in Killeen, Col. Larry Phelps is in charge of seeing that families of the 1st Cavalry are doing all right. He knows from his own family's experience how difficult it is for children when a soldier deploys to war.

"There's no minimizing how hard it is to lose a father or a mother for 12 to 15 months," he says. "That is hard business."

To help them cope, Phelps and his staff have added programs for children, more counseling for families and worked to find ways to help families back home connect with their loved ones in Iraq.

One of the most innovative is the teleconference from Iraq, which allows families in the United States to speak and see their loved ones in Iraq.

This day, it was the Lebold family's turn.

In a conference room at Fort Hood, two large screens were evident. On one, a soldier in Iraq sat at a table, sipping a cup of coffee. On the other, a family walked into view. It is Stephanie Lebold and her three children. Her husband, Michael, flies helicopters for the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq. On his screen in Baghdad, he can see his family, and in the Fort Hood conference room, they can see him.

"Hi, Daddy," the two oldest children whisper, as they look up to the screen. Little Davie puts his head in his hands and stares longingly at his dad.

"Dad, is that coffee?" he asks.

His father laughs, pauses as he takes in the sight of the children he hasn't seen in months, and says, chuckling, "Of course it is coffee. And it is about the same temperature inside that it is outside right now."

Stephanie longs to talk with her husband about all the things a husband and wife need to talk about, but time is limited, and the children want to talk to their daddy.

"Tell me about the butterflies and moths you are learning about," Michael says to Carissa, who is quiet and wide-eyed, hanging on to her father's every word.

Suddenly, she begins chattering to him about their common interest -- bugs and nature and all the things she is studying. He laughs as she goes into detail about every bug she has seen. But he knows time is precious, and Stephanie asks him, "Do you want to see Shelby walk?"

Shelby is the baby. Michael motions on the screen to them, "Shelby, Shelby, come here, come here," he calls.

Stephanie holds Shelby's hands as she toddles toward the looming image of her dad.

"Wow," he says, "Wow. That is amazing"

The time for their teleconference is nearing an end. Michael grows quiet, then looks at his young children, "Mommy says you say a prayer together."

Yes, they tell him, every day.

"I need you guys to be really good for Mommy and help her out with Shelby and I love you so much and I miss you and I really, really can't wait to get home," he says.

As the conference call wraps up, he tells them the bad news. His deployment has been extended. He won't be home for Christmas.

Stephanie closes her eyes for just a moment, to hide the tears that have sprung up. Then she looks up, with a wide smile, at the husband she aches to hold. She gets up from the table and walks her children to the screen. Carissa jumps up to touch it. "Daddy!" she shouts, smiling and laughing. Stephanie holds the baby's hand up in a wave. Michael waves back.

Stephanie and the children return to the conference table, and Michael tells them he loves them. They blow kisses to each other until he realizes his time is up "I love you. Bye bye. I will talk to you soon." He takes off his microphone and gets up to leave. He has to fly helicopters that day, and duty calls.

And he leaves, knowing his family has seen that, today, he is happy and well. And they will pray, every day until he comes home, that they will all be happy together, very soon.

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