By Elaine Sanchez
WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service) – Children of U.S. service members around the world will be honored throughout April for their contributions to their families’ well-being and sacrifices on behalf of the nation, a Defense Department official said.
Each April, Americans pause to recognize the nation’s 1.8 million military children during the Month of the Military Child.
“It’s really important to recognize that military children also serve,” Barbara Thompson, director of military community and family policy, children and youth, told the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.
It’s also important, Thompson said, to take time to let military children “know how proud we are as Americans that they … are supporting mom or dad in uniform, who is making great sacrifices for this country.”
While frequent moves and school transitions can be challenging, Thompson said she believes the most challenging endeavor a military child has to endure is a parental separation due to deployment.
“While we’ve made great strides with technology and Skype … it’s not the same as having your mom or dad at your baseball game or high school graduation or one of your birthday parties,” she said.
These separations can have a “serious impact” on military families’ well-being, Thompson noted, particularly on the children. Younger children may experience separation and attachment issues, while older children may engage in risky behaviors, she explained.
Thompson noted a specific concern for children from Guard and Reserve families. These children, living in every community around the nation, may be lacking nearby support. A military child may be the only student in a school with a deployed parent, she said, and the school oftentimes isn’t even aware.
“School districts are key partners,” Thompson said. “That’s where 92 percent of our school-age kids are located. They need to know they have military children in their schools.”
To combat a sense of isolation, officials have posted information online to educate teachers, school administrators and parents on supporting military children.
On installations, child development centers, youth programs and the New Parent Support Program are geared for providing “safe havens” for military kids, Thompson said.
The department already has made strides by partnering with other agencies and organizations, she said. DOD works closely with Zero to Three’s Coming Together Around Military Families initiative, and with Sesame Street’s military support programs such as Talk, Listen, Connect and Military Families Near and Far.
Officials have partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and 4-H to increase the programs and resources for school-age military children, Thompson added.
The DOD also has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, land-grant universities and the Cooperative Extension System to reach out to military children in communities, she said, noting 70 percent of military kids live off of installations.
While they’re making progress, DOD officials can’t tackle these issues alone, Thompson said. It will take the efforts of an entire nation — from individuals and communities to government agencies and private companies — to accomplish this goal, she added.
Every American can help to support military families, she said, and no effort is too small. A neighbor can help a parent with a deployed spouse by pitching in with a carpool, driving children to an extracurricular activity, or mowing a military families’ lawn.
Schools can set aside special days to honor military kids’ contributions, and communities can sponsor a play or picnic, or simply find the military families in their midst to thank them, Thompson said.
She suggested people visit the White House’s Joining Forces website to find service opportunities that support military families in their neighborhoods.
Taking care of military parents has a positive and direct impact on their kids, Thompson noted.
“It’s important to care for the stay-at-home parent with a deployed spouse,” she said. “They’re the first responders for these children. If the stay-at-home parent isn’t being nurtured, it’s very hard for him or her to nurture those children.”
While military life can be challenging for children, it also offers tremendous opportunities for growth, Thompson said.
“We know that it’s challenging to move every two to three years and uproot and make new friends and adjust to a new environment and a new community,” she acknowledged. “But those are also opportunities for growth and resilience, to learn very quickly how to make friends and adapt and be flexible.”
Thompson said she’s spoken to military children now in college who reflect back to their experiences with a different perspective.
“While challenging in the moment, it really prepared them for being away from home, for forging new relationships and seeking new interests,” she said.
Thompson encouraged people to take time this month to honor military children for their sacrifices, whether it’s with an event or words of gratitude.
“One of the things that’s disconcerting is we know that 1 percent of our population is in uniform and is serving, and the other 99 percent of the country takes full benefit of that,” Thompson said. “As a community, we owe it to our children to honor them and to protect them.”