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PHOTO CAPTION:  FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Deployments are one of many challenges unique to military children.

September 19, 2013
By Andrea Stone (Fort Carson)

FORT CARSON, Colo. -- They never chose the Army, but many of them were born into it. And as they grow up, the nearly 2 million military children face many of the same challenges as their parents -- frequent moves, repeat deployments and reintegration.

And they pay many of the same costs as their parents. One in four military children has symptoms of depression, and more than one in three has anxiety issues, according to a study in the May 27 issue of the journal "Pediatrics."

"The fear of abandonment with the kids has been heightened in this community because they've been left behind so many times," said Justin Cole, licensed clinical social worker, New Parent Support Program, Army Community Service.

Yet, many of them can't imagine life differently.

"I don't think I would trade how we live," said Chris Brown, a high school senior at Liberty High School. "I think I'm more worldly. I tend to adapt more to other things than I could have if I'd lived someplace my whole life."

Rotating schools

Military children move an average of six to 12 times during their school years, according to the Military Child Education Coalition, and each of those moves can create anxiety.

"We see a lot of adjustment disorders. (That's) more of a short-term condition that's caused from a stressor," said Dr. Jacqueline Delano, clinical director, school behavioral health, Child and Family Assistance Center, Evans Army Community Hospital.

When a child has a difficult time adjusting to a new situation, whether it's a parent deploying or a move to a new location, it can lead to anxiety, depression and conduct problems, she said.

"Some kids might not have a behavioral disorder, but their behavioral problems are a result of these difficulties adjusting," Delano said.

Even infants and toddlers can have difficulties adjusting to a new move.

"It disrupts their schedule because they're very much into routine. That's what settles them and keeps them balanced," said Brenda Hart, licensed clinical social worker, New Parent Support Program.

Military children can feel anxiety over new schools and whether they'll make friends, in addition to their grief at being separated from old friends.

"What if they don't like me there?" Chris Brown said, sharing her fear in moving to a new place. She's attended six schools in 12 years.

"I don't like to be the new person," said Caylin Peterson, an eighth-grader at Carson Middle School.

Anna Knowlton, a junior at Mesa Ridge High School, has been the new person nine times, three times in first grade alone.

"(I) won't get to go to a high school reunion in 20 years and see all (my) friends from high school," she said. "(I'd) have to go to a lot of different reunions."

Moving frequently can have unexpected benefits too, though.

"(The advantages are) their flexibility, some of them, their ability to make friends because they've had to do it so many times, adaptability, socialization, resilience," Delano said. "They've learned to overcome obstacles. They're a little bit more persistent or determined."

It's a lesson that can help carry them through their future.

"I'm not really afraid to meet new people or interact with other people, start new things," Chris Brown said, looking forward to her first year of college next year.

Each move can bring new experiences, as well.

The Peterson Family arrived at Fort Carson a little more than a year ago from Germany.

That assignment was the first time the children had flown and, while there, they saw their first snowfall, said their mother, Nicole Peterson.

They also visited several castles, explored Paris and visited most of the western European countries, said Justin Peterson, a junior at Fountain-Fort Carson High School.

Because of the frequent moves, military children can develop friends all over the world.

"It's really funny on Facebook. I'll make a new friend here, and then I'll look, and they'll have mutual friends from other posts," Chris Brown said.

One of the most challenging issues in moving frequently is the difference in school requirements from one state to another.

"For example, my kid took Texas history, and now when we get to Colorado, (Colorado schools) didn't accept it," said Tracy Brown, team lead for Parent to Parent, and Chris Brown's mother.

"And now with the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, the Army has gotten the majority of states to sign the pact. The Army recognizes that this is a big problem for Families, getting kids' credits to go with them when they move," she said.

The compact provides for uniform treatment of military children across state lines on issues such as enrollment, school records, academic placement and graduation requirements.

Parent to Parent, a Department of Defense funded program, can help parents navigate the academic challenges military children face.

"I teach parents how to be their military child's best advocate," Tracy Brown said.

In addition, school liaison officers with Child, Youth and School Services can assist in choosing a school. With 28 school districts within a 50-mile radius of Fort Carson, parents have many choices, said Stephanie Gillotte, SLO.

They also assist Families who are leaving post.

"When they're leaving, we want to give them as many resources as we can to make that transition to the next installation go as smoothly as possible," she said.

Those preparations can help children feel better about a move.

"When they know ahead of time information about their school … they are thrilled because that eases their mind and their worry a little bit, and kind of gets that butterfly feeling out of their stomach," said Carmelita Carrillo, SLO.

Rotating deployments

The continuing cycle of deployments can be challenging for military children, as well.

"When you look at the continuing of all the deployments, and you've got kids from birth up, there's a whole series of grief and loss events there, things you've missed … you can't get those days back," said Ken Robinson, Family Advocacy Program specialist, ACS.

"In some deployments we only talked to him once every two weeks, maybe," Chris Brown said. "That was hard because we were just getting into high school, and we were like, we have so much to tell you, but we couldn't."

Caylin Peterson recently celebrated her 13th birthday while her father is deployed to Kuwait.

"I'm going to have a cupcake … and I want to blow out the candle when he's on the phone," she said.

Unfortunately, he wasn't able to call and she was crushed, her mother said.

"I hate when he misses my birthday or when he misses a day where it's special. I want him to be there, but he's not," said Ramel Peoples. His father is on a year deployment to Afghanistan.

Not only do Soldiers' children feel the pain of missed birthdays, holidays and important events, they worry about their parents.

"Every time he deploys, I feel like the odds are getting worse," Chris Brown said. "I would feel guilty when I thought about the possibility (of him dying), but I can't say that. I don't even want to think that."

"That was one of my surprises coming in, was the level of anxiety that I saw in kids," Delano said. "I think parents think, 'If we just don't talk about things, then the kids won't think about it.' They're thinking about it all the time. All that does is create an environment where they don't feel like they can talk about dad."

With parents deployed, children can feel the need to assume the responsibilities of the deployed parent.

"You're the man of the house. You have to take care of everybody. My dad says, 'Always help out with your mom.' That's what I do. I help out," Peoples said.

"You've got to be strong for everybody else in your Family. Me, being the oldest, I kind of have to help mom out with what dad usually does," Anna Knowlton said.

For children who are having problems with anxiety or depression, or just need someone to talk to, there are programs available.

School behavioral health therapists are available at several schools in Fountain-Fort Carson District 8, through referral from a school counselor or psychologist. The program allows students to get counseling services in the school, eliminating the need to go elsewhere for help.

Military and Family Life counselors are also available through several area schools, Army Community Service, and they're embedded in Soldiers' units, as well.

"The great thing is, it's non-medical, free, anonymous counseling," Carrillo said.

Even if a MFLC isn't available in a child's school, parents can contact ACS and set an appointment.

"They'll go to meet anywhere, but in someone's home," she said.

The counselors help with deployments, reunions, transitions, behavioral issues and anger management skills, she said.

"Family cohesion is one of their No. 1 goals, keeping that Family together and helping them cope with the military lifestyle," she said.

All the programs to help children ultimately help Soldiers' themselves.

"If the Soldier knows … their kid is getting mental health treatment in school, they're doing better, then hopefully, that helps them not worry so much when they're over there," Delano said.

But even after deployments end, the stress on military children doesn't end.

"(With) so many deployments … kids were now in homes where they didn't know the parent who'd been gone so long. Those are some of the issues that are coming up now," Gillotte said. "Dad's home now. He's had four deployments. I don't really know dad. Some kids are really struggling with that. They're getting to know, essentially, a stranger that's just been in and out of their lives."

"Some children feel reluctant to … even invest that time. They kind of withdraw themselves and isolate," Cole said.

Infants can be fearful when they're first introduced to the redeployed parent.

"They can cry more, have a different kind of cry … and they tend to turn away when they don't want to be around somebody (who's) a stranger, so there might be some of that," Hart said. "Be patient. It'll happen."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Patrick Knowlton, 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, was deployed to Kosovo in 1999.

"Carley was 8 weeks old (when I deployed), so when I came back, she had no clue who I was. It was pretty rough for about a week or so," he said.

Reintegration and readjusting to Family roles takes time, and the situation after a deployment becomes the new normal, Hart said.

"It's not back to the way it was before … people change from deployment," she said.

"The whole system has to be restructured. The Family in general has to work out reintegrating," said Craig Lombardi, licensed clinical social worker, New Parent Support Program.

Some Families find themselves growing together through deployment and reintegration challenges.

"It makes us stronger, but it's really sad when you see Families fall apart because of it," Anna Knowlton said.

Families who are having difficulties adjusting can get help through the MFLC program.

"No records are kept," Carrillo said. "They don't report back to either the unit or the Soldier's chain of command. They don't report back to the Soldier if the spouse goes and doesn't want the Soldier to know."

Even with all the challenges of being a military child, many of them are happy with their lives and proud of the role they play.

"I have something to be proud of my dad for," Anna Knowlton said.

"Help the kids see that what they're doing is important, too, not just what the parent forward
is doing is important," said Tracy Brown.

Offering advice to other military children, Chris Brown said, "It's going to be tough for a while, but it's … going to be better in the long run. You're going to benefit from the things that you've learned and the people that you've met and the places that you've been. It's all going to be worth it."