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Continued: Gail Rosenblum: Troops' kids have their own struggles

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 7, 2009 - 11:36 PM

The plan Thursday morning was to sit in the next day on a support group of military kids at Hastings Middle School. I'd ask how life was going with a parent or sibling serving overseas or readying to redeploy.

The plan Friday morning was to join group leader Rick Wheeler and author DeAnne Sherman in collective breath-holding, all three of us unsure about whether to mention to the students the bloodbath that transpired Thursday afternoon at Fort Hood, Texas. Against reason and technological realities of the modern tween and teen, we naively hoped they hadn't heard.

Twenty minutes into the session, one of the 20 students brought it up. Body language shifted. Of course, they'd heard. Of course, they wanted to understand. Without embellishment or buffering, Wheeler told them what he knew.

"It's good to get this out," said Wheeler, a school counselor who has run the rare support group for about five years. "This will be in the news for many, many weeks."

I doubt it. My bet is that Fort Hood will be out of the news cycle in days, throwing the emotional fallout of this war back into the laps of overwhelmed military families.

Perhaps most ignored are kids like these, carrying emotional baggage far beyond their years. One need only glance at the glossary of terms at the back of Sherman's recent book, "My Story" (www.seedsofhopebooks.com), which is a fictional but fact-informed handbook written in blog format and directed at military teens:

Depression. Improvised explosive device (IED). The new normal. PTSD. Suicide hot line. Traumatic brain injury.

"They're really afraid," said Sherman, a veteran teacher who co-wrote "My Story" with her daughter, Michelle Sherman, a clinical associate professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center and director of the Family Mental Health Program at the Oklahoma City Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"They're angry. They ask, 'Why is my parent the one to go?'"

Michelle Sherman is quick to note that most military youth are resilient. In fact, some studies suggest that military kids, now numbering 2 million, are mentally healthier than their nonmilitary peers. But she is troubled by shifts in recent months, likely because of cumulative effects of this unique war.

The average military family moves six to nine times during the school years, she said. "Add to that deployment to a war zone, then repeated deployments becoming the norm, and the reality of IEDs, and then a parent may come home with PTSD, physical injuries or depression." This puts tremendous stress on the couple's relationship and consequently on children, some of whom complain of insomnia, anxiety and trouble keeping up in school. Some abuse drugs or alcohol. There's a new worry, too: high blood pressure in the very young.

About one in four military kids is a teenager, she said, and that poses unique challenges when parents return.

"Your parent may have left when you were 14, but now you are physically changed, you have your driver's permit. It's a really hard adjustment. They're striving for a 'new normal,' which is not the same as it was before."

Reaching out to military kids is essential, as some programs are doing. (Visit www. operationmilitarykids.org and operationpurplecampinfo. com).

Too often, though, adults don't ask these kids how they're doing. And kids don't want to burden parents on the home front.

"I want to do my own thing, hang out with my friends," said Dylan Jackson, a junior at Shakopee High School who was interviewed separately. His dad has been in Iraq since February, and he knows his mom is struggling.

"There are more confrontations because the big guy isn't here to settle things down," he said. "Sometimes I feel bad when I leave my mom at home. It hurts. I know I should be helping."

Wheeler said the Hastings group is his biggest yet, with about 23 students. He keeps things informal, inviting kids to talk if they wish. One girl reports that her dad drove over a roadside bomb, but is OK. Another worries because his brother "never writes to us."

Jordan Almeida, 11, said she had "no idea" there were so many other military kids at school. "It's nice to have friends that know what you're going through," said Jordan, whose father landed Thursday in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment.

Rachel Peterson, 12, is dealing with her father's repeated deployments as a major in the National Guard. The worst part, she said, is the empty chair at the dinner table. Skylar Rawling, 13, said his father, who flies Blackhawks, won't be redeployed to Iraq until 2013, "but you never know."

Despite the challenges, the kids feel pride in being military families, and Wheeler is happy to support them.

"During Vietnam, I was really anti-war," he said. "I've learned to separate the politics from what the experience is like for the kids. This group is not political. We don't talk about whether it's right to be over there. It's 'What are your needs? Where are you hurting? How can you draw support from each other?'"

Jackson can't get enough of that. "When counselors or football coaches ask, 'How are you doing?' it makes me feel like, well, someone cares," he said.

"We're not in this alone."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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