Soldiers' kids struggle to cope with multiple tours

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Soldiers' kids struggle to cope with multiple tours
By DAVID McLEMORE
The Dallas Morning News

KILLEEN, Texas – For kids in the military, the prospect of war has always been part of the package, almost expected. Moms and dads have to go away from time to time.

But as the war in Iraq rolls into its fifth year, the escalating cycle of combat deployments is wearing on the children and their families, said Jennifer Gutierrez, counselor at the Reeces Creek Elementary School in Killeen.

"We see children who are very, very angry with the multiple deployments because Dad is gone on this third tour and when he comes home, Mom will be gone for her second," said Ms. Gutierrez, counselor at the school of 750 first- through fifth-graders in Killeen.

Officials at the Killeen Independent School District, where 52 percent of its 30,000 students have at least one military parent, have had to develop programs to help children cope with the fears of separation and loss stemming from multiple deployments. Teachers and counselors whose spouses are going off to war again must deal with both their needs and the needs of their students.

"Military families are now living in the new normal," said Judy Picot, coordinator for counseling services for the Killeen schools. "In my 25 years in education, I've never seen the level of pressures brought on military families as now.     "We see many more kids whose grades are dropping, who act out, get angry or get depressed than we used to. And our job is to find evermore creative ways to help them cope."

Study: Abuse is up

Researchers at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill back up those beliefs.

In a study that looked exclusively at children in Texas, they found that rates of abuse and neglect of young children in military families in Texas doubled in the wake of large-scale troop movements in preparation for war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before 2002, rates of abuse and neglect were slightly higher among nonmilitary families, researchers found.

That changed in 2002, when the rate of abuse within military families steadily increased through the latter half of the year – and again in January 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq. Reported cases of abuse rose from 5 in 1,000 children to 10 in 1,000. Victims were typically age 4 or younger, with the abuser usually the parent who stayed home.

Because the research dealt only with limited data ending in 2003, it's difficult to establish what long-term patterns developed out of the longer deployments now under way, said Danielle Rentz, principal author of the study published May 15 in the American Journal of Epidemiology .

"The patterns we did see, however, showed that military families are under stress and that maltreatment rates among military families increase in times of high deployments," she said.

The study looked at Texas because of the state's large number of military families and the availability of research data. The findings were based on data provided by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System on substantiated instances of child maltreatment reported in Texas from January 2000 to June 30, 2003, not on interviews with individual families.

"The stress of war extends beyond the soldier to the family left behind," Dr. Rentz said.

And the older a child gets, the stronger the impact of those stresses, Killeen school officials said.

Teachers see evidence of a significant increase in emotional issues among students and more reports of neglect and abuse, said Charlotte Graves, a counselor at Smith Middle School, located on Fort Hood. They range from angry outbursts in class and dropped grades to depression, drugs and self-mutilation, she said.

"We're seeing a lot more disciplinary problems," she said. Though much of it is handled through counseling at the school level, "we're making many more referrals to outside agencies such as hospitals and psychiatrists than before."

At Smith, where every student is from a military family, counselors and teachers bring kids in for communication groups over lunch to let them talk out their concerns.

"We hear their frustrations, the fear for the deployed parent, the anger at the at-home parent who may not be dealing well with deployment," Ms. Graves said. "They're tired of being surrogate parents for younger siblings. Mainly, they're just tired of Mom or Dad being gone all the time, missing birthdays and other family celebrations."

The schools also hold frequent after-school activities that bring other family members in to play games and just relax. Most parents are very aware of the difficulties their children are having, Ms. Graves said.

"Frequently, the parent in Iraq will call and say he just wants to talk to his child," she said. "So we call them into the counseling office and let them talk."

Improved support

Since 2003, when an Army survey showed that family support services were reaching only 30 percent to 40 percent of families, the Army has continually revamped its policies regarding family support and welfare to increase support programs for medical care, counseling and schools.

It has also ramped up the Family Readiness Groups, which help Army families deal with problems related to deployments and long family separations – including financial, social or child-care needs and emotional support for those families whose soldier dies.

The readiness groups now include a paid staffer at the brigade and battalion levels to provide better continuity of leadership. Recently, the Army added the extended families of single soldiers to the services provided by readiness groups.

Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commander of the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, wholeheartedly endorses the change. And he's ordered that whenever possible, 4th Infantry soldiers be given the weekend off to be with family.

"The commanding general has made it very clear that families are so important to improving our combat readiness," said Col. Jim Carter, divisional chaplain for the 4th Infantry Division. "The less a soldier has to worry about his family's well-being, the more he can focus on the mission."

Gen. Hammond has added Cleopatra Stanonik, the division's readiness group support team leader, in division staff meetings to better communicate information to families.

"It's a two-way street," Ms. Stanonik said. "We listen to the families when they tell us what they need, and we make sure they get the information and support they want."

More than 20 miles from division headquarters, members of the 4th Infantry's 1st Brigade are preparing for a third trip to Iraq this year.

In the mock combat environment of North Fort Hood, members of the 4th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery are getting ready for war.

"The first time wasn't so bad, but now it's more stressful," said Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Shay, a 10-year Army veteran and the father of two children, ages 5 and 2. "With the increased deployments comes increased fear. Your anxiety really ratchets up, and your wife and kids ask a lot of questions that you don't always have answers for."

When the brigade leaves for Iraq, it will be his second tour.

His wife plans to return to her family's home in Colorado, which worries Sgt. Shay because it takes her out of the Army's support network. He also worries about the effect of changing homes and schools on his children and missed birthdays and family celebrations.

About 60 percent of the 4,000 members of the brigade have had at least one combat tour, while about a third will be returning to Iraq for the second or third time. The 4th Infantry just returned from its second tour in December, and has largely spent the time training to go again.

"We're aware of the stress we put our soldiers and their families under," said brigade commander Col. Jim Pasquarette, who noted that many of the young military officers are getting out of the Army.

"They've been to Iraq twice, and they see no end to it. I tell them that from a career perspective, Iraq won't be there forever."

Back at Fort Hood, Lois Olson reflects that her husband, Maj. David Olson of the 1st Brigade, has been deployed five of the last eight years. In December, he'll make his third deployment to Iraq.

"I believe in what they're doing, but I hate to see him go," Mrs. Olson said. "It's particularly hard for our daughter, Jasmine. At 13, she really struggles with her anger that he has to go again. She'd like to have her daddy home."

Mrs. Olson praised the improvements in the Army's support system for families.

"We're simply there for each other," she said. "But my faith is what gets me through. I have to believe that God will take care of Dave, me and Jasmine. I couldn't have done it otherwise."


GETTING HELP

The military has a number of Web sites and tools to help families deal with deployments. Here are some resources:

www.militarychild.org

www.militaryonesource.com

Additionally, Military OneSource staffs a help line 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The number is 1-800-342-9647.

SOURCES: Military Child Education Coalition, Military OneSource and Dallas Morning News research


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