Operation Educate the Educators helps schools support military-connected students

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21 2012 5:30 p.m. MST

A troop formation from 1st Marine Division lined Rivera Drive in Temecula, September 2012.

Cpl. Christopher Duncan

Each Independence Day and Veterans Day at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Hopkinsville, Ky., the preacher asks veterans, active duty service members and their families to stand. A handful of people rise. Among them, a few children and teens beam with pride for their parents. Some children struggle to hold back tears as the applause of more than 1,000 congregants fills the large chapel, echoing off the high ceiling. It's a moment of recognition for children whose friends have little understanding of the sacrifice military families make, and who might not even remember their country is at war.

Historically, the U.S. military has been mostly comprised of single men, but now 55 percent of service members are married, and 43 percent have children. With U.S. troops stationed in 150 different countries, and withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for two years from this December, the 2 million military-connected children will continue to face relocations, deployments and reuinions.

Marc Maxwell, author of "Surviving Military Separation," is an Army guidance counselor for service members and their families at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. He says children of service members need to be recognized at school as well as at church. Otherwise, he says, "They feel invisible."

More than 80 percent of military-connected students attend public schools, and every public school district in the country serves military-connected families. In civilian communities like Hillcrest, families are sheltered from the bustle of life on the base, but schools and teachers are often unaware of the specific challenges military-connected students might face.

Orders to relocate

Kristine Shellhaas had finally found a good half-day preschool program for her son Quaid at Fort Benning, Ga., when her husband received orders to relocate 2,000 miles away to "the middle of nowhere," Twentynine Palms, Calif. There, the preschool programs were all full-day, and the good ones already had waiting lists.

Children in military families often move six to nine times between preschool and graduation. Frequent moves can mean sitting alone for lunch at a new school and having to catch up — or repeat work — in core subjects.

Quaid started kindergarten in Twentynine Palms at a school Shellhaas says "couldn't be bothered" to communicate about bus schedules and canceled events. Then the family got orders to move again, this time to Camp Pendleton, Calif., three hours away. Now, Quaid is in second grade, in a public school right on the base. Shellhaas says this school is very supportive of their military-connected students, offering special programs to support students and their parents through deployments and reunions. Quaid has had a great experience there, but his father just got moving orders again.

Shellhaas says they don't know where they're going this time, but she expects they will be somewhere on the East Coast for a year, then somewhere else after that. She's glad her husband plans to retire before their son is in high school. "It gets really hard when kids get older," she says, because states and schools can have very different graduation requirements.

Missing milestones

Quaid's father now trains Marines stateside, but he was away for training and deployment during much of his son's early years. He missed Quaid's first day in kindergarten, as well as his school shows and Christmas program that year.

For older kids, a parent's absence comes with a personal knowledge of war that can isolate them from peers and teachers for whom war might seem irrelevant.

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