“Where were you on 9/11?”
Most adults can readily answer this question when reflecting upon the terrorist attacks against the United States that took place on September 11, 2001. America’s children, however, cannot.
Children today have never known a time without war. They have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, and the threats associated with it have shaped their lives. A generation of heroes emerged, but their heroism often came at great cost to themselves, and to their families.
As the nation closes out a nearly 20-year war and prepares to observe the 20th anniversary of this national tragedy, emotions are escalated. All of this has a significant impact on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of a nation, especially its military-connected families and children. These children are watching how the adults around them — family members, educators, coaches, neighbors, club leaders, and more — react to the news coming out of Afghanistan and are listening in as we discuss ramifications of the withdrawal.
Amidst the discourse in these emotion-laden times, it is vital to pause and reflect upon how we, as a nation, can best support military children, particularly those with a parent who is a wounded, ill, or fallen servicemember.
To provide meaningful support, we must first start by actively listening to what these children want us to understand. DAV (Disabled American Veterans), PsychArmor Institute, and Camp Corral recently came together to make the voices of more than 2,000 military-connected children heard through a report titled “15 Things Military and Veterans’ Kids Want You to Know.”
Military kids cope with stress in unique ways
One of the most essential takeaways from this report is that military kids often process their feelings differently than other children. They may experience physical symptoms caused by the stress of worrying about a parent’s deployment, frequent moves, or taking on extra responsibilities at home. They may not want to share these feelings due to a belief that doing so may “over-burden” a parent already coping with challenges related to deployments or injuries.
These children state that they often “just want to be a kid” for a temporary escape from stress. Other times, relying on support groups and connections with other military kids is the right approach because the only ones who truly understand what it means to be a military child are fellow kids with parents who served.
Military kids often step up as caregivers
Military children may not know specific details about what their parents experienced during a deployment, but they do recognize when their parent returns home a changed person. Their mom or dad may look the same but act differently due to a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress. Other times, a parent may look different due to a physical injury that may leave them unable to do the same activities they previously could. In both cases, kids may struggle to adapt as the family dynamic evolves to care for the changed parent.
Kids often rely on the understanding of non-parental adults in their lives in these cases – especially when the child takes on caregiving responsibilities at home. Recent research data provided by Camp Corral indicates nearly 70 percent of children take on caregiving duties in wounded warrior households.
Military kids are proud
The last thing any military child seeks is pity. These children are proud of their parents’ service, and despite how much stress they endure, they understand the reason for a parent’s absence while deployed. This understanding builds a strong desire to serve something greater than oneself and is borne out through eventual service in the U. S. Armed Forces at a rate higher than that of their civilian counterparts.
One more thing that these children would like us to know is that they serve, too. Military kids proudly support their families and serve our nation in their own way and through their unique sacrifices and should be accorded the respect of the time and effort needed for non-military community members to develop a better understanding of them and their lifestyles.
Though one war has ended, the battle wages on for many military and veteran families. The lasting effects of 9/11 will continue to have implications for the warriors who answered the call to safeguard our nation and for the loved ones who supported them, including their children.
Hearing what they want to tell us in the “15 Things Military and Veterans’ Kids Want You to Know” video and sharing their message with our schools, neighborhoods, first responders, medical professionals, and service organizations is a great place to start building a bridge to better understanding in communities across the nation.
Kerry Irvin is the Director of External Relations and Partnerships for Camp Corral, a national nonprofit provider of support and enrichment opportunities to the children of wounded, ill, and fallen military heroes. An active-duty military spouse and DoD-certified resilience trainer, her efforts to create communities in which military families can thrive have been recognized with the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Secretary of the Army’s Superior Public Service Medal. Connect with Kerry at www.linkedin.com/in/kerryirvin.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.