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.
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.
When Lynnzie Leavitt's dad deployed from Camp Williams, Utah, to Afghanistan, she organized a high school event to send care packages to men in his unit. She says one teacher had heard about troops coming home from Iraq and told her, "Don’t you know? All the soldiers are coming home now. Why would we send packages to them?" Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Leavitt had been gone for two weeks and did not get back until a year later, the day after his daughter's junior prom.
Leavitt says she thinks teachers want to understand their military-connected students, but most lack experience with and training about military life. Meanwhile, students like Leavitt "are spending every day thinking about what's going on over there."
Leavitt's father came home when she was 17. "I sometimes think that's the hardest part of the deployment," she says. While a parent is away, "you kind of have to forget where they are and what they're doing. When they come home, you have to face it." Parents sometimes come back with post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or anxiety. Meanwhile, says Leavitt, "we don't necessarily have the same support that we did during deployments."
"The kids develop patterns of existing without their parent" during deployment, says Ryan Williams, an LDS chaplain at Camp Pendleton. When a parent returns, "it can disrupt their whole pattern, their whole routine and schedule."
Building supportive schools
That is why the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the Military Child Education Coalition have partnered with Joining Forces to create Operation Educate the Educators, partnering with teacher education programs to prepare teachers and principals to meet the needs of military-connected children. More than 100 college education programs have already joined the effort.
Even an hour or two of teacher training on military life and its challenges makes a difference, says Kelly Barnes, a civilian contractor with the National Guard. Barnes runs youth programs in the state of Utah, working with military-connected children to build their resilience and prepare them for the many transitions they will experience during deployment and reunion.
In addition to leadership training for youths, his program reaches about 60 teachers per year with seminars on military life and the pride and stresses their military-connected students experience. Barnes hopes Operation Educate the Educators will extend the reach of teacher training programs like his.
According to the website, Operation Educate the Educators hopes to reach at least 10,000 teachers, student teachers and principals through partnerships with colleges of education and local k-12 schools. The program will provide guidebooks and seminars on the needs of military-connected students and will work with schools to develop school communities that support these kids.
Across the country, in Kentucky, Maxwell agrees the need is great: "Every day someone retires there's a new private that comes in with a family (in need of support.)" He looks forward to the day all school communities are as supportive as Hillcrest Baptist Church.
Gretchen Krebs has taught general and special education in New York and Utah. She is passionate about finding innovative approaches to meet the needs of all students. Contact her at [email protected]