Bearhugs for soldiers' children

Groups try to ease the burden of a parent's deployment with counseling and networking – as well as books and bears.

Caryn Finn-Reilly's children have just finished dinner, and they're pestering her for one more piece of candy before they settle down to read. On the surface, it's a typical evening routine, but for this family, it's a new normal to be a group of three, not four. In August, Sgt. 1st Class Dan Reilly mobilized with his Army National Guard unit for training and deployment to Kosovo. He's due back in December 2007.

They've set up a webcam, so Dan will occasionally be able to talk face to face with Caryn, Andrew, 5, and Lorraine, nearly 7. But when the kids need to feel connected to Dad, they can also turn to something decidedly low-tech: their bears.

Andrew shuffles to his bedroom to fetch a teddy bear with an American-flag patch on its shoulder. He squeezes it tight as his mom explains: "This bear has special powers. [Every kid in the unit gets one] and when the kids hug the bear, the daddies, wherever they are, can feel the hug." Distributed by the Guard before deployment so soldiers can give them to their kids, the bears come in handy when Caryn is nearing the end of her rope after a full day of work in desktop publishing. "I'm always saying, 'Where's the bear? Go get the bear!' " she exclaims with a laugh.

The bears, donated in this case by a local Rotary club, are also a symbol of how a community can spring into action to support "suddenly military" children. Roughly half a million K-12 students in the United States have parents in the National Guard and Reserve, and they've been facing more deployments in recent years. But because many of these children don't live near military bases, each town and school with even one or two of them has a lot to learn about how best to help families cope.

Some signs of empathy are visible: classroom letter-writing campaigns to a parent's unit; volunteers staffing a day of activities so military kids across a region can meet one another. But people working closely with these families don't always know what resources are available to address deeper issues such as a child's or spouse's mental health needs.

"Schools are probably the first line of defense for noticing anything that might be an issue," says Jennifer Cesaitis, coordinator of the Massachusetts National Guard Youth Program. "If we can identify it soon enough, then we won't end up in a situation – and this has happened – where a student is curled up in a ball underneath his desk and the teacher doesn't have any idea why." The better the flow of information between the military, the schools, and the parents or guardians, the stronger the safety net for the child.

Creating that safety net was the focus of a free two-day seminar in Massachusetts last month, where teachers and youth counselors learned the various ways children of different ages tend to respond to the deployment and reunion cycle. For younger children, negative effects can range from sleeplessness to complaints of illness, while teens might act out more or become withdrawn, Ms. Cesaitis says. But it's also important to give children opportunities to see the plus side: Families can show their resilience during a deployment, becoming closer and more flexible.

"As educators, as community members, and as parents ... we must talk in a way that children hear the language of courage.... These children are also serving," says Mary Keller, executive director of the Military Child Education Coalition, a national nonprofit group that provided the recent training here. She suggests telling a child, for instance, "You're experiencing a lot in your life, and you're staying the course, and we're proud of you."

The Massachusetts National Guard places a youth service medal around the neck of every child who has a parent sent off on a mission, Cesaitis says. The Army has distributed Operation Military Kids grants to teams of military and civilian youth workers in 34 states, to sponsor activities such as the educational seminar here. In Massachusetts, part of the grant is used to give children backpacks with stationery and a disposable camera so they can stay in touch with parents, and a storybook that addresses separation.

Patricia Bein, executive administrator of the Canal Village School in South Hadley, Mass., has had three elementary-age students with fathers serving in Iraq. One brought in a pillow for naptime with her father's photo printed on it. In a kindergarten class, Ms. Bein was able to steer a 4-year-old away from a tussle with a classmate by asking him to show her a small photo album he was clutching, that contained pictures of his then-deployed dad.

A teacher's role is "making sure they know it's OK to talk about it, and also that it's not OK to give [the parent at home] a hard time," she says.

What stood out most to Ms. Bein at the seminar was the need to be alert for children who may not have a cohesive family. "You always have in mind the stereotypical OK family without a lot of issues.... [But] there could be a family that felt guilty because they couldn't wait for Dad to leave again because he was verbally abusive."

At the Col. John J. Robinson school in Westford, Mass., Lorraine and Andrew are the only children whose parent has been deployed. Armed with a packet of information from the Guard, Ms. Finn-Reilly gave the school several months' notice before Dan left town, and she's in nearly constant communication with the kindergarten and first-grade teachers.

"We were able to start the year knowing where the issues might lie," says Principal Denise Arvidson. Any child at the school can take a "teddy bear" pass and go see a counselor if he or she is feeling sad or has a problem.

The woman in charge of Andrew's kindergarten class has a 5-year-old son, so she knows when something is amiss, Finn-Reilly says. On that teacher's recommendation, Andrew started seeing the school counselor.

His behavior "hits right on the timeline," his mom says. "I was expecting it, I just didn't know how it was going to come out." During the conversation at her home, she notes quietly when he's exhibiting some of these signs. Generally he's bubbly and contented, but it's punctuated with a brief episode when he cries that his tooth hurts, and later, a series of aggressive pokes at his teddy bear with a plastic flute.

Lorraine, too, offers up her share of what her mother sees as regressive traits, but Finn-Reilly seems to have her coping mechanism down pat: a healthy blend of firmness and affection with the kids, and an ability to laugh most of it off.

"I always keep it positive with them – we never cry about missing him," she says. Well, that's not literally true – the rabbi at their temple spoke so movingly about Dan's service that it made the whole family cry – but it's a goal. "We cry, but we're not angry that he's taken from us.... It's so easy to just succumb to 'Woe is me, what do I do?' and I want them to not have that. I want them to have as normal a kindergarten and first grade as possible."

Besides the teachers, her support network includes friends from her temple and the Guard unit's volunteer Family Readiness Group – spouses, relatives, and friends of the deployed – which meets about once a month.

Research into the effects of deployment on children is scarce, partly because it's difficult to access them, says Shelley MacDermid, a professor of family studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Her own studies of military bases have found that child-care and youth centers often cut back on hours and activities during large deployments, when they're most needed, because of staffing shortages.

Professor MacDermid is concerned about the number of times she's heard deployed soldiers say upon their return that they're hesitant to reengage in their children's lives, out of fear they'll soon be ripped away for another mission. "That's a scary proposition for a parent-child relationship in the long term," she says.

Studies should be done on whether deployment contributes to developmental delays in children, and to determine how schools can be most helpful, she suggests.

In her Westford living room, Finn-Reilly seems to be a pillar of calm amid the occasional brother-sister tugs. As challenging as it is to run the household without her husband, she knows he has to cope with the absence in different ways. When they talk on the phone, she doesn't withhold how the kids have been affected. "[I tell him] 'You don't have to feel bad, we're dealing with it.' He's the troubleshooter – he can fix everything, so I think it's been really hard that all of a sudden he can't fix this one."

But at least they can all feel the bearhugs.

Resources to support military children

Military Child Education Coalition – a nonprofit dedicated to research and programming: www.militarychild.org

Military Brats magazine – by kids for kids: www.militarybratshome.com

Military OneSource hot line – advice and referrals for military personnel and families: Call 800-342-9647 or see www.militaryonesource.com

NACCRRA – National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, partnering with the US Department of Defense to assist military families: www.naccrra.org/militaryprograms

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