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The Forgotten Victims: Our Service MembersÂ’ Children

Written by veterans  |  27. July 2007

There is so much happening in the veterans community this week I probably could write a column a day and still at the end of the week have to decide what it is I would not be writing about. Whether about current legislation, the search for a new secretary Of the Department of Veteran Affairs, this week's congressional hearings that included presentations on funding veterans benefits, or to expand upon a past column concerning what is now being called "The I.R.S. Option" in processing initial veteran claims (Process All VA Disability Claims as Approved: Now There's a Thought - https://experts.longisland.com/veterans/archive_article.php?ExpArtID=2707), a choice had to be made. That choice was made for me when I read an article by Tony Allen-Mills published in the July 22, 2007 edition of the UK Sunday Times and available at "TimesOnline" (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article2116138.ece) (yet another "tip o' the hat" to Larry Scott and his VA Watchdog Dot Org site - http://www.vawatchdog.org/). While the full article can be found at the end of this week's column, I have included several quotes from that column, following. I'm Okay with It As Long As... "It is hard to ask an 11-year-old if he is worried his father might die, but the question has long been preying on the minds of an estimated 155,000 American children with a military parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan." "They are easily overlooked in the turmoil of America's troop surge in Iraq, but a generation of military children is growing up amid pressures that would crush many adults." "The story of the youngest American victims of the Iraq war is partly a dismal catalogue of anger, grief and Pentagon neglect. But it is also an inspirational tribute to the efforts of ordinary military families to shield their children from solitude, depression and stress." "As US military deployments have lengthened and multiplied in a war with no victory in sight, children are going months without seeing their parents - months that are often spent frantically worrying they may never see that parent again." "There was a girl... who told us she had always been used to being comforted by her mother when she cried or got upset," Barron said. "Then one day she heard her mother crying in the bathroom. She felt she had to take over as the comforter, to be the one who was strong." "Then there are the children of the thousands of soldiers injured in combat. "They ask questions like, 'Can my dad still throw a football? Will my mom still be able to hug me?'" "I'm okay with it," [the child] answered bravely. But his voice tailed off as he added: "As long as he comes back alive . . ." As Long As Dad Comes Back Alive... US army children are fraying amid pressures that would crush many adults I AM sitting in a field in central Oregon with an 11-year-old boy who calls himself "Twelve Thirty Savage". His real name is Matt Evans-Spate, but last year he jumped off a stage at his children's summer camp, hit his head on a rock and was taken to hospital by ambulance. His new name commemorates the time of the accident and the way he felt about it afterwards. Twelve - as I started calling him for short - seems an ordinary enough American kid, one of countless thousands across the country enjoying his summer at an activities-packed camp in the woods. He has been swimming, canoeing and done archery, and later he will learn how to make a bird's nest from twigs and mud. Yet Twelve was not quite as happy as he seemed. His father, a US navy reservist, is awaiting a summons to active duty in Iraq. "My dad's on call," he said. "It's 50-50. If they can't find someone else he'll have to go." It is hard to ask an 11-year-old if he is worried his father might die, but the question has long been preying on the minds of an estimated 155,000 American children with a military parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. "I'm okay with it," Twelve answered bravely. But his voice tailed off as he added: "As long as he comes back alive . . ." They are easily overlooked in the turmoil of America's troop surge in Iraq, but a generation of military children is growing up amid pressures that would crush many adults. As US military deployments have lengthened and multiplied in a war with no victory in sight, children are going months without seeing their parents - months that are often spent frantically worrying they may never see that parent again. "The resilience of some of these kids amazes me," said Joyce Raezer, head of the National Military Families Association (NMFA), an independent charity that has been arranging special summer camps for children with parents on active duty. "But we've begun to see the cracks." The story of the youngest American victims of the Iraq war is partly a dismal catalogue of anger, grief and Pentagon neglect. But it is also an inspirational tribute to the efforts of ordinary military families to shield their children from solitude, depression and stress. On the other side of the Oregon field, Sarah Dizick, a friendly 12-year-old in purple-rimmed glasses, was trying to make giant bubbles by dipping a plastic hoop into a paddling pool filled with soapy water. Sarah's parents are divorced, which is tough enough for any 12-year-old to handle, but she is also struggling to deal with the consequences of her father's recent return from Iraq. "He hurt his arm," she said. "He was near an explosive. He wasn't, like, right next to it, but it blew up." Her father was invalided home from Iraq a month ago and has been undergoing physical therapy in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is due to return home to Oregon soon, but Sarah seemed strangely ambivalent about seeing him. Was she looking forward to him coming home? "Yeah, kind of." How long ago had she last seen him? "Sometime around last Christmas." But she must have missed him badly? "Yeah, kind of." Then the reason for her reticence emerged. Her father had telephoned to say he would be taking her on a long vacation. They would have at least six weeks together. But wouldn't that be great? "Yeah, kind of. But I'm worried about missing my mom." This summer the NMFA is running week-long Operation Purple summer camps at 34 locations in 26 states, catering for almost 4,000 children. Purple is the colour the military uses to signify open to all services. The camps are free to military families and are aimed at providing the children with a friendly, stress-free environment where they are too busy having fun to worry about their parents in Iraq. Patty Barron, the wife of a senior Pentagon staff officer and one of the NMFA's deputy directors, has visited several of the camps and met children who left an indelible impression. "There was a girl in a camp in Rhode Island who told us she had always been used to being comforted by her mother when she cried or got upset," Barron said. "Then one day she heard her mother crying in the bathroom. She felt she had to take over as the comforter, to be the one who was strong." Too many children have been trying to be strong for too long, added Raezer. "Some well-meaning adult has said to them, 'Your dad's in Iraq, you have to look after the family now.' But the war has been going on so long. Families are experiencing multiple deployments. Many can survive a single deployment and adjust, but it's happening over and over again. It's too much stress for the kids. Some of them are trying to take on too much." At a camp in Massachusetts, Barron sat in on an interview with two sisters whose father had been injured in a helicopter crash. As the older sibling began to talk about her father's return in bandages, "the little girl started to sob. I mean, really sob". Among the adults supervising the Oregon camp was Mike Beaver, a Salem social worker who counsels numerous Iraq veterans, many of them suffering from posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD). "What I've noticed with these kids, especially the younger ones, is that they do really well when they are busy and active. It's hardest when there's down-time, when they have to be quiet on their own. Then they become emotional, homesick, worrying about Dad or Mom. That's when they call me in," he said. Many young children away from home suffer similar symptoms, but the fear of violence in Iraq adds a cruel dimension to ordinary worrying. "There's a really broad spectrum of awareness of the war," Beaver said. "Some moms watch the news at home all the time, and the kids are really aware of the dangers. "Other moms isolate and protect their kids from any news about the war. All the kid knows is that Dad is somewhere in Iraq just doing something. I guess a middle ground between those two would be most helpful." Then there is the military tradition of a stiff upper lip and the persistent notion in Pentagon circles that whining is for wimps. "The military has not been heavily into mental health counselling," Beaver said drily. "The old value if you were in the military was to suck it up [grin and bear it]," he added. "For many of these kids, talking about feelings and letting themselves be emotional is not easy for them to do." Barron recalled meeting a girl in Massachusetts whose father and stepfather had both been deployed to Iraq. "She complained that whenever she talked about it to her friends they would tell her to 'suck it up'," Barron said. "But she told us, 'How am I supposed to suck it up all the time? It's all right for them, their parents aren't doing something where they might die'." The military stigma against seeking outside help was still potent, Barron added. "You shouldn't rock the boat too much, you should protect the stay-at-home parent." But both she and Raezer believe the length and violence of the war are forcing the military to change the way it deals with stress and the needs of service families. Barron said she was drawn to work for the NMFA after an extraordinary exchange with the wife of a senior general serving in Iraq. It was after the December 2004 attack on a US military mess tent in Mosul. A suicide bomber infiltrated the camp and killed 22 people, among them 14 American soldiers. "When the explosion occurred the godfather of my child, [Brigadier-General] Carter Ham, was the commanding officer [of US troops in northern Iraq]," Barron said. "I talked to his wife and got a long e-mail from her about how helpless she felt when Carter called from Mosul and just broke down sobbing about how responsible he felt for his men. And she was crying too." When US generals are crying down the phone to their wives, it is hard for anyone at the Pentagon to pretend that sucking it up is a realistic policy. Raezer said the Pentagon had already accepted it needed to do more work on the widely reported problems of PTSD among troops returning from Iraq. About 75,000 cases have been diagnosed so far and countless children have had to contend with the return of a parent they barely recognise. "They get very confused by PTSD," said Barron. "The returning parent may look the same, but they are acting very different. The kids wonder, 'Is Daddy mad at me? Why is he so angry?'" Then there are the children of the thousands of soldiers injured in combat. "They ask questions like, 'Can my dad still throw a football? Will my mom still be able to hug me?'" The Pentagon has begun giving training to its officers to "send out the message that you should not be embarrassed by PTSD, but should seek support", Barron said. But she believes the stigma of mental health therapy won't fully go away "until troops see their commanders coming back from Iraq and going for a session with a counsellor. When the general goes to see a counsellor it'll be okay". At the Operation Purple camp in Oregon, the activities last week included horseriding, learning to apply camouflage face paint, the study of flora and fauna and an "adventure swing" that hurls kids high in the air. "It's hard for me sometimes," said Michaela Shouldis, 11, the only child from her small town of McMinnville with a parent on active duty. "But it's fun here." The 54 children at the Oregon camp were divided up into several groups that were allowed to choose their own names. My new friend Twelve was sitting with a gaggle of boys who called themselves, with a certain amount of adolescent confusion, the Pink House of Manliness. Their counsellor was Tyler Trinh, a hip 18-year-old from Portland, whose camp name is Snare. "Okay, we're going to play an awesome game," he announced. "Are you guys stoked?" A couple of the 11-year-olds looked puzzled. "What's stoked?" asked one. "It means excited," said another. "That's right," said Trinh. "Give me some skin, dude." He exchanged high fives with the giggling kids. At that moment, Iraq seemed far away, but even amid the happy chaos of a summer camp in the Oregon woods, there were shadows over the fun. Jennifer Huggins, a pretty 10-year-old from the neighbouring state of Washington, hasn't seen her father since Christmas. "A lot of his guys have already been killed," she said. "He goes patrolling a lot. But I think he's pretty safe." She paused and watched her new friends washing mud off their faces after their bird nest-building project. "I just don't want him to get killed," she said. ... Nor do any of us Jennifer, nor do any of us... --- Regards, Walt Schmidt

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