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The “New Normal” and Milbrats

March 25, 2009

Military families with children won’t be surprised to know that Children deal with PTSD, too. As service member mommies and daddies head off to the battle front, leaving children behind with other family members and a metric ton of anxiety and fear, children have begun to exhibit symptoms of PTSD.

…When [Aimee Ybarra] recently asked her daughter, Royana, how she felt about her dad being away, the 8-year-old replied, “I’m afraid of him dying. He’s been gone too many times. I’m not sure he’ll come back this time.”

According to this article, there are 1.8 million military brats. One point eight million – the population of Dallas, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, combined. How many of these kids have deploying parents? According to Dr. Michelle Sherman (Family Mental Health Program – OK City VA Health Center) , 1.64 million service members are deployed, and we’re not talking about the typical Navy 6-month cruises. These are year-plus deployments, and the way the military doles them out,  I swear Costco must have been running a special.

When kids are old enough to know that Daddy or Mommy deployed, the heightened stress of the remaining single parent or unaccustomed grandparent-guardian feeds a fear and heaps unimaginable responsibility on children too young to carry such burdens.

“My son uses every wish possible that he has on his dad, and Christmas was evident of that,” Ybarra said. “My son asked Santa to bring Dad home. That was his wish for Santa.”

A week later her 4-year-old son, Adrien, commented that no one listens to him because he was not granted his Christmas wish, she said.

I don’t know about most four-year-old kids, but mine understood that things were Not Normal and Not Fabulous when his father deployed to Afghanistan last summer. It had been an especially rough two years, with two back-to-back deployments (one normal, lasting six months, and a “surge” deployment on its tail that lasted four months) followed immediately by the IA. Sprog the Elder began having violent outbursts that usually ended with him trying to break something or hurt himself. We sought counseling from the Fleet and Family Service Center, and it broke my heart to listen to him tell a story from the Curious George book he was leafing through. “Curious George is scared because he can’t find his mommy and daddy,” he told us.

What about the children old enough to understand what’s happening over there? Kids like Royana Ibarra, whose father is on his fifth deployment – with more coming – know all too well that some children never see their deploying parent again. Those even older understand that there are myriad possibilities for that parent’s state of mind upon returning from a war zone. Injury, PTSD, even personality changes could mean that life doesn’t become peaches and fluffy bunnies when the family is whole once more.

What’s the solution? The Military Child Education Coalition has created a new program called “Living in the New Normal” to help address this problem of burdened military families, and especially children. The information about this program at MCEC’s website looks great, but what about the title of this program?

Living in the New Normal. Is it okay to tell a wee one missing her dad that this is normal? Because it’s not normal. The military lifestyle in peace time isn’t even all that normal. Sure, there are benefits – kids do come out of this experience resilient – but the military life is transient, unstable, and often very stressful. Kids give up friends and school, favorite hang outs and comfortable schedules to create a new life from scratch…and in two years, start the process over again. Add two wars, heightened operational tempo, and a 42% increase in child abuse incidents, there’s absolutely nothing normal about this life. At all.

Who are we kidding? Let’s not pad the truth – these kids are well aware of how suck-tastic the situation is when Mom or Dad deploys. This is not the New Normal. It’s Life on Hold. It’s Keeping Your Chin Up Even When You Want to Curl in a Ball and Sob. Maybe we tell ourselves that this is just a New Normal so that we have a way to minimize our own angst over a family run amok. But why should we do that to our kids?

Instead of deflecting a blow we can’t even cushion, we’re minimizing their fear, their anger, and their desires. Dad’s not here, he’s in danger, and Mom is stressed. There’s no candy-coating that at all. When we try to cushion that blow, and especially when we fail, are we telling our kids that they have no right to their grief? Are we telling them that they aren’t so normal after all? Especially now, they don’t need that extra stress.

I think the Homefront Project has it pinned down better, according to what milspouse Tracy Kehrer has to say about it:

“It’s that constant support to say, ‘It’s OK; you’re normal. You’re just in abnormal circumstances,'” she said. “There is absolutely no way we could’ve put up with deployment number four without our family counselor? [sic] We’ve now been given permission to cry.”

That sounds about right. Normal in abnormal circumstances. I’ll buy that one, too.

For more information about the Homefront Project, check out the information in Maxine Trent’s presentation. If you know of other programs available for families dealing with deployment, leave a comment and point the way.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2009 5:20 am

    Great resources – thanks for this post.
    Some days I’m lulled into thinking the troops will come home and these wars will be over, but then I read something like this and I realize that no, it won’t. No matter how stellar of a parenting job or how much support a given family has during a deployment (or four or five), this all still becomes part of a child’s life story. We need to pay more than lip service to these kids because they’ve paid enough.

  2. snarkynavywife permalink*
    March 25, 2009 5:42 am

    Well said, LM. They have paid enough.

    • March 25, 2009 3:59 pm

      I feel so strongly about this. There isn’t much we can do to change the history, but hopefully we can help support these kids’ futures. I wouldn’t have proper liberal “spend, spend, spend” cred if I didn’t think these kids all needed a free college education! I get that that’s not possible – or is it? Aren’t Gold Star kids exempt from tuition in some states? Could we extend that to all states and include kids of the severely disabled vets?

      What about excluding vets’ kids from paying down war-related deficit? That part pisses me off the most…every time some nutty Republican stands up and indignantly decries how Obama is burdening our grandchildren with this monster deficit, I want to pull my hair out.

  3. March 25, 2009 6:53 am

    B and I are planning for kids and the not to distant future and this crap scares me.

    I wish I could say more but that is really all I can think right now.

  4. Jessica permalink
    March 25, 2009 6:55 am

    The military lifestyle is hard on the whole family. But it is so sad that so many children are going to bed every night worrying about whether they will ever see their daddies (or moms) again.

  5. March 25, 2009 11:38 am

    That was a great post and really eye-opening. Thank you for writing it.

  6. The Army Wife permalink
    March 25, 2009 11:57 am

    You all know that we don’t have kids, but 99% of our friends out here do. Our best friends here in town have a two year old. He is on his fourth deployment to Iraq (the first two a “normal” 12 month deployment, the third a fifteen month, and this current one another 12 month. All with only 12 months in between). Not only is it hard for him for a million different reasons, but it’s heartbreaking for him, his wife, and those of us who know them — I can only imagine hwo difficult it would be to hear your two year old daughter ask you every single day “Where’s Daddy?” And not just once, but multiple times. How do you explain to a two year old where Daddy is?

    Saying “he’s at work” only goes so far for so long.

    • snarkynavywife permalink*
      March 25, 2009 7:46 pm

      Our two-year-old had no clue. We tried to compartmentalize the types of separation for him by saying “Daddy’s at work today, and he’ll be home tonight,” “Daddy’s underway, and he’ll be home in three weeks,” and “Daddy’s on deployment, and he’ll come home as soon as he can.” Even when elder sprog was three, it was hard going, and he would often start asking (loudly, and usually in public) where his daddy was and when he was coming home, then demanding that he come home NOW.

      It’s hard, and at that age, they really don’t understand time, but it did seem to help somewhat in keeping them from freaking as much when the husband left for a quick month-long underway.

  7. March 25, 2009 12:36 pm

    Snark, thanks for the post its great.

    I guess since my husband has only done the traditional 6 month Navy cruises I havent really been too fearful he wouldnt return. But even those deployments are hard on spouses of course. Now that we have a child, I dread the days when we head back to a ship. I have no idea how I will be able to explain to our daughter why daddy doesnt come home every night. And I think you are 100% right – its not the “new normal”. Because there is nothing normal about not seeing a parent for that long.

  8. March 25, 2009 1:11 pm

    And let’s be honest. Nothing about military life is “Normal”. Deployments aren’t normal for anyone… Not us, not our husbands (or wives), not our kids or our families. It is almost insulting for this to be called the “New Normal”. It minimizes all the struggles and worry and pain these tours impart on everyone involved… especially the kids.

  9. The Army Wife permalink
    March 25, 2009 1:30 pm

    Yes, I agree that nothing about military life is “normal” and Tucker, you’re right, saying that it is “normal” is definitely an insult.

    My issue is a little more in depth, I think, and please don’t shoot me when I say this. I get deployments, and I GET that *sigh* it’s part of my husbands job. [please don’t kill me!] I knew going into my marriage that we were in a time of war, and my husband, a soldier, would be required to act. Because, well … it is his JOB.

    HOWEVER … the point that all of this becomes a problem is what we’ve already said: the length and the regularity of these deployments. We don’t DESERVE the backlash it causes. It seems to me that it’s the same groups deploying time and time again. And not for six months, but for a year or longer, having no time to recover while home with their families.

    And yet, there are military out there who have NOT deployed yet! How is that possible?? The military needs to step up and circulate people properly. Maybe then families wouldn’t have so many issues. Maybe then we wouldn’t have service members on their fourth and fifth deployments while others haven’t gone at all. And maybe then, when families have time to recover before preparing for the next deployment, there wouldn’t be as many issues with children, with murders, with PTSD, etc.

    • LAW permalink
      March 25, 2009 1:44 pm

      we don’t have a little one at home anymore, he’s grown up with a child of his own after his own stint in the Army. I’m a State Dept brat – we did the get comfortable then tear out the roots and start again too. But I cannot fathom how these kids are getting through what these innumerable deployments do to them.


  10. March 25, 2009 1:41 pm

    You are absolutely right about all of that Army Wife… share the wealth, spread it around, it is only fair (I hate the idea that there are units out there that are literally non-deploying units… and how can I get Swiss into one of those?). Heck, my husband’s unit is ALREADY slated to go to A’stan after 12-15 months dwell time once they come home from this tour they just started. I mean, if he doesn’t retire, we will back in this same place in less than 2 years. There is no time for recovery and adjustment… the backlash is huge and what is being asked of us ‘few’ and our families isn’t fair. IT IS NOT NORMAL.

    And DON’T. EVEN. GET. ME. STARTED. Y’all know how I feel about the “You chose this” bit. But I will save that rant for another day…

    • March 25, 2009 1:44 pm

      Yes, definitely “share the wealth”. I can imagine it would be hard to know that in two years could potentially be in the same place with another deployment, and some people have never went. Not fair at all.

      And I was only teasing… I HATE when people say that too. Gaaah… Ignorance!

  11. progressivegal permalink
    March 25, 2009 4:03 pm

    I love it – the “new” normal. Unlike the old normal where anything other than a stiff lip got you called a crybaby (though that “normal” still applies to too many).

    In my area we decided to do something with the “Month of the Military Child” idea and asked our local congressman to hold a military child/education forum where we could get a group of students/parents/administrators/military organizations/military reps/teachers/etc. together to talk about the effects of separations and moving for our children.

    His office was very receptive to the idea and it is in the planning stages now. I don’t know – I feel like I actually did something to help and am looking forward to what comes out of the panel. Obviously it won’t be a panacea but certainly getting all those involved, at least at a local level, along with the people who are making our laws, can’t be anything but a good start around here.

    For me, we try to maximize the goodness we can, the positive things we can do in our own family to make deployments better. But we won’t know the effects, not all of them anyway, until way later. I am proud to be a part of a family that serves, but I do worry about the effects on my kidlets.

  12. March 26, 2009 2:25 pm

    Go watch this video and tell me this does not take a tremendous toll on kids:

  13. michelle permalink
    March 26, 2009 3:14 pm

    Normal it is not. We are a national guard family. At the time of his first deployment, my dh had already been in for 20 years. At least I was one of the wives who always said “this is going to happen someday.” It was worse for those who really believed that National Guard = no deployments. I was prepared; I met my husband in 1987, so by 2005 I had already had many many years to prepare. My children were not. I don’t know if that was our fault or what, but it just never seemed to be the right time to say “look, Daddy has this job, and I know he only goes ‘to the Army’ on the weekends, but he could end up going away for a long time.” So the deployment did come as a surprise to them. And it was hard to adjust. It wasn’t normal. We didn’t want it to be normal because if we admitted it was our ‘new normal’ then we would be admitting that it could be our forever – life without Dad. Instead, it was life on hold for 15 months, telling ourselves that Dad gone was only a temporary thing. With another deployment looming we’ll probably just do the same. I never want this to be normal for my kids. I want them to enjoy a normal life while Dad is gone, as much as they can – taking family vacations, celebrating holidays, but I don’t ever for a minute want them to have to imagine that it will be a forever situation for them.

    • snarkynavywife permalink*
      March 26, 2009 3:19 pm

      I hear what you’re saying, Michelle. We do equate normal with how things should be, and we hope for normalcy. Expecting kids to equate constant and long deployments (with a parent or both in a war zone or two) is really cruel. I hope your children deal better with the second deployment. I hope it’s not as difficult for them to adjust to the situation and that they’re able to have as good a time as possible. It sounds like you’re aiming true with your intentions, so here’s to hoping that fate is receptive and your kids cooperate. 😉

  14. michelle permalink
    March 26, 2009 3:39 pm

    we also had the added bonus of my son being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 6 weeks into the deployment, so everything in our lives was in upheaval that year. This time, God willing, things will be a little more calm. LOL. But “new normal” is a phrase we use to describe our life with diabetes – it is normal, just not the same as before, and we know it will always be like this, so we have come to embrace that this is what normal will now be like. I want my kids to understand that while Dad has a job to do, and while we are so very proud, and we hope to accept that this is our life, that it isn’t normal. We don’t kick and scream and we don’t spend our time balled up in the corner, but I never want them to get used to their father not being here.

    Oh, I forgot to comment on the CNN video – does it bother anyone when soldiers surprise their kids like that?? It makes me a little sad for the kid.

    • March 26, 2009 4:09 pm

      Oh, I forgot to comment on the CNN video – does it bother anyone when soldiers surprise their kids like that?? It makes me a little sad for the kid.

      You know, Michelle, great point! I think when people get upset about the whole “photographing coffins at Dover” issue – THAT video is what they fear.

  15. March 27, 2009 10:54 am

    That poor child. I’m at aloss as to why the father did that. surprising him, fine. Cameras in his face – why? Yeah – is it better to film things like this, or the farewells when children are hanging onto their parent and wailing – or a still photo of a flag draped coffin. None are good, but so many have decided that the first 2 are ok, heartwarming, “show our sacrifice”. They show our children being traumatized. This isn’t the crying when you meet Santa – or because you want a toy. This is the crying of a child who may not understand fully, who knows that they talked about daddy/mommy leaving, but not realizing it really was going to happen.

    We were National Guard – kid was already out of the military, so I didn’t have little ones, but knew that the kids of the MN Guard were suffering. When the extension was announced, these kids hadn’t seen their dad/mom in 18 months. I remember being at a “reintegration” meeting, when the counselors were swamped by spouses, and they were setting up counseling for the kids, and realized they needed a hell of a lot more of them! I talked to a few women, one was having serious problems with her son – he was a young teen, and was now doing the defiant acting out routine with her. and felt so alone, no other kids in his town had a parent in the military.

    This may be the Month of the Military Child – we need to make sure all the children of the military have the opportunity to talk to a counselor, or other kids in the same boat. Operation Purple camps are a great way to start!

    Michelle – I wish you and your kids a fast and safe deployment. If we can help, let us know. There are some really good researchers here, and we have a lot of experience in this bunch of folks.


  16. michelle permalink
    March 27, 2009 12:53 pm

    Thanks Law – we’ve got some time until it happens – too much time IMO, I’d rather we just get it under way. But as it is the Army in their infinite wisdom has decided that we should know now that they deploy next spring. In some ways, that’s good because maybe things will change (doubtful) and it gives families time to do what they need to do. And it gives us as wives time to get our FRG together (national guard..bad frg system) I think it simply gives me a year to obsess. lol The kids will not know until sometime after the new year, officially. At least this time they are aware that Dad will probably go away again, it won’t be a surprise. They expect that it will happen. It’s just a mess all around. I love the military – the national guard has given us a stupendous life. Don’t get me wrong. 🙂

  17. March 27, 2009 12:56 pm

    “Normal in abnormal circumstances.”

    Definitely! We are facing probably a year apart and I wonder how my kids will take it. Sure we will be near family, which softens the blow, but a year of not giving their Dad a hug or kiss goodnight? Coming from a time when our son would sometimes miss him so much he’d cry on duty nights, hopefully enough communication will be the answer. Otherwise I don’t know.

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