On May 18, 1998, 2AM, I received a call from my brother informing me my father had been killed in a car accident on a deserted road outside Wells, Nevada. My husband was deployed in Italy as an air planner for the Kosovo-Serbia conflict, and I lived in Columbia, South Carolina with my 14-year-old daughter. I really don’t recall the details even at the time I received the call, I remember wandering aimlessly around the room not able to make sense of anything. I remember my daughter hearing me and crying in my bed. I hadn’t shed a tear. I was an automaton, numb, confused, and disoriented. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t plan, I couldn’t function.
According to Jewish law my father needed to be buried within 24-48 hours – as quickly as possible. I called my husband in Italy, and when I shared the news, he said, “Call Red Cross. Get me home.” And that’s exactly what I did. My husband was flown home, and we were on our way to Nevada less than 24 hours after notification for his funeral. This was my first encounter with Red Cross while my husband served in the military but it wouldn’t be my last.
Almost 31 years ago, I gave birth to my daughter Rachel. She was raised with the fierce loyalty, pride and honor of having a father who serves his country. Though I had the best intentions for her, oftentimes the lifestyle was problematic. We deliberately lived outside the military community, and she was usually the sole military kid. Though she learned to make friends quickly, her peers gravitated away once learning that she would be leaving soon.
Coupled with the difficulties of life as a military kid, my daughter lived through her entire grade school years with an un-diagnosed medical condition; a condition that if we were civilians, would have been diagnosed sooner. Because of the military hospital system, where pediatricians moved as often as their patients, she suffered too long with a malady that was accompanied by bullying and ostracism in the already-difficult middle school years.
Though living off base could be problematic, it also allowed my daughter to reinvent herself. She started each move with a clean slate, and by the time she graduated high school, she was captain of her swim team and the editor of her yearbook. Throughout it all, she remained positive, resilient and confident. She was an avid reader, a kind, compassionate and empathetic child, which later as an adult made her an adept writer and editor while holding steadfastly to the connectedness of extended family and friends and the traditions that make our family alike yet different from others.
Though most military children emerge resilient, many—including those that seem to be strong and self-confident—need support to combat the many issues that can arise. Reports of increased depression, anxiety, school problems, anger and defiance issues, are prominent in military children who experience frequent deployments from a military parent. These issues also increase when their non-deployed parent shows evidence of higher levels of distress and anxiety during these periods. One study by the Resilience in military children is not inherent. Self-confidence, effective coping skills, problem-solving and a sense of belonging comes from a strong community that builds on opportunities for personal strength. Though deployments are tapering off, the community’s inclination is to pull back the programs designed to encourage a military child’s resilience and ability to overcome deployment distress. However, as parents return to their communities, they face other hardships like unemployment, emotional trauma from the aftermath of battle, financial stress, physical disabilities and spousal role changes. This may lead to marital conflict and child maltreatment. Strength-based programs built on research and evidenced-based practices that measure resiliency and efficacy should be not only continued, but expanded and improved.
The American Red Cross, Service to the Armed Forces, provides resilience programs like Reconnection Workshops which give service members and their adult family members – typically spouses – information and skills to cope with reintegration from deployments and other life circumstances. Using the same format, a module specially designed for children at different development stages is under design. The program uses high-quality, evidenced-based practices that are strength-based for the military child. Subject Matter Experts in mental health, health care and education, along with other military child experts have developed tools and activities which provide opportunities for children to boost personal growth thrive under adversity, increase functioning in schools and social situations, and develop self-control, confidence and competence.
My story is no different from other military families, and in many ways, it is easy compared to the lengthy back-to-back deployments military families are faced with today. But for the most part our children are resilient. Parents work hard to reflect our camera to focus on the positive, the strength and the good that can come from any new challenge and it makes us stronger because of it. I’m fortunate I had a spouse who supported my ambitions and shared in the parenting when he was home. He did not come home physically, emotionally or mentally disabled. It’s been four years since his retirement and in that time we’ve lived in one home and one city. And I get to work in my field in a job that allows me to build on my own experiences and finally give back to other military families.
Diane Manwill is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Mental Health Lead for Service to the Armed Forces for the American Red Cross at National Head Quarters in Washington D.C.
Cederbaum, Julie, Gilreath, T, Benbenishty, R., Astor, R., Pineda, D., DePedro, K., Esqueda, M., Atuel, H., “Well-Being and Suicidal Ideation of Secondary School Students From Military Families,” Journal of Adolescent Health. June 2014, 54(6), 672-677. Easterbrooks, M.A., Ginsburg, K., Lerner, R., “Resilience among Military Youth,” Future of Children. Fall 2013, 23(2): 99-120.