Serving on the Home Front: Military Kids Make Sacrifices That Often Go Unnoticed

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey urge school districts to offer more support.

(Photo: George Frey/Getty Images)

Aug 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Struggling with math homework, Cyrus Huong, a high school student in Falcon, Colo., needed help from his dad, a highly trained computer specialist. But his father, a U.S. Army officer, was at work in an Afghanistan combat zone more than 7,000 miles away. So Cyrus, a rising junior at Falcon High School, dialed up a video chat with his dad and held the computer camera over his homework so his father could see the equations.

“He copied it down, and that way we could do it together,” Cyrus said during an interview with other children of service members at the Military Child Education Coalition National Training Seminar in Washington, D.C., last week. Not having his father in the same room for homework, he said, “was tough, of course, but at least we could do it together.”

Talk to any student who has a parent serving in the military, and chances are he or she can relate to Cyrus’ problem. With the nation technically still at war, it’s common for the estimated 1.8 million “military kids” to face challenges at school and on the home front that their public school peers might not understand.

Those range from saying good-bye to one or both parents heading to a combat deployment or a training exercise to dealing with a parent who didn't come home from the war. It can happen early: According to MCEC, 78 percent of military kids are 11 or younger, nearly 40 percent have seen a parent head to war, and some parents return home disabled or suffering from combat stress.

While it’s not a new phenomenon—back in the early 1970s, my father, who served in the Air Force, was deployed to Vietnam when I was in elementary school—it’s become a more complex issue than when Dad and I traded letters once a week. While my father did just one deployment, about 47 percent of active-duty service members who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sent more than once.

At the same time, the demographics have changed: More than 214,000 women are in uniform, about 14 percent of the total number of service members in the Armed Forces, and single parents make up roughly 5 percent of the entire military force. Given that, it’s not unusual for a deployed single parent to send the children to a family member’s home in a new city until the combat tour is over.

Even in peacetime, however, military kids face singular challenges—including packing up when their parents are transferred to a new base or post, a regular part of military life. Experts say that leaves military kids more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and other issues that can trigger behavioral problems and learning difficulties.

To counter that, the MCEC holds annual seminars bringing together child development specialists, top educators, and military leaders—including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The goal: Trade ideas and develop solutions to help support military kids.

In a joint interview at MCEC’s National Training Seminar, Duncan and Dempsey agreed that a key component of helping military kids cope is helping school districts around the nation identify the children of service members and offer services, if needed. “Some districts do that better than others,” Duncan said, but “it’s an important starting point.”

Duncan also pointed out that peer support can make a big difference for military kids, recalling that he once observed how classmates came together for a child whose father had just been deployed. “They had their arms around her,” letting her know she wasn’t alone, Duncan said.

For Cyrus, that meant becoming active in Student 2 Student, a group aimed at supporting military kids—in part by letting them know they’re not alone. Part welcome wagon for new students and part support group for the more experienced, S2S groups in schools around the country make coping a bit easier through student-led activities and mentoring.

Though life can be difficult without a parent around, Cyrus said life as a military kid has its advantages. In some ways, he says, he is more resilient than his peers, has a broader perspective about the world, and understands that his mom sacrifices too.

Having Dad gone, he says, “is just a part of life.” Still, he won’t complain if his dad takes off his uniform and sticks around, even if for a little while.

“I wouldn’t mind one year,” he said, laughing.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.