Teens in military families finally have voice

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 23, 2011 - 9:24 PM

For years, teens have been overlooked in military support programs. Now a Bloomington teenager is helping to change that.

Kiana Kelii, shown with her father, Bruce, meets with teens from military families from across the state.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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When 15-year-old Kiana Kelii attended events to prepare for her father's military deployments, her choices were to sit with the adults while they learned about insurance benefits or hang out with her 10-year-old brother and other little kids while they bounced on inflatable toys or played video games.

"OMG," she texted her mom after picking the little kid option. "They're making us do a puppet show."

Nearly 10 years into the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, deployments are rising, and so is the stress on teens such as Kelii, who've been largely overlooked by military family support efforts that have centered on young children and adults.

It goes beyond boredom, as Kelii's sagging grades showed in 2008.

Now, as her father gets ready for his third deployment, she is more prepared, thanks to a new group she's helping to lead: one of the nation's first military support programs for teens.

In between homework, driver's ed lessons and hockey practice, Kelii meets with seven teens from across the state in the Minnesota Teen Panel to organize events, including a first-ever summit in June to connect and support teens.

"You don't always want to confide in your parents, and your friends don't understand it," said the Bloomington Jefferson High School freshman. "We wanted to start something that connects teens."

With her parents by her side, Kelii spoke Wednesday at the University of Minnesota about her father's Army National Guard deployments to experts who work with military families and others who have examined the effects deployment has on youths -- an emerging field nationwide.

Void in research about teens

According to military support groups, more than 15,000 Minnesota kids under 18 have a parent who has, will be or is currently deployed. Among them are teens who are more likely to hide signs of depression, act out or become more irritable due to the stress of a parent's deployment. They're also expected to take on chores or other duties of the absent parent.

"The impact is different for teens, in part because they can take on more roles in the family ... and sort of mask their feelings," said Angela Huebner, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who spoke at Wednesday's event.

Huebner's 2004 study was the first time researchers talked to teens about the impact of military deployments, she said; before then, parents reported affects on children. "There was a big void."

The continuing wars are prompting more work like Huebner's.

U assistant professor Abigail Gewirtz is conducting a first-of-its-kind study on 400 Minnesota National Guard families, evaluating the effects of parenting resources to help youths during and after deployment. If it's successful, the program will be implemented nationwide with aid from the Guard and the National Institutes of Health.

"Guard families are especially vulnerable because, unlike families on a base, they're more isolated," Gewirtz said. "We've met families where both parents have been deployed a total of three, four, even five times. How could families not be affected?"

'Nothing for teens'

After deployments, Huebner said, studies show that teens bounce back slower than adults do because they're anticipating another redeployment.

"For some kids that's all they remember ... Mom or Dad being deployed," she said. "They were never really certain it was done."

Kelii's father, an officer with the 134th Brigade Support Battalion, will leave in May for Kuwait with 2,400 Minnesota National Guard members, his third deployment since Kelii was 7.

When her father left in 2008, Kelii's struggles with grades almost got her kicked out of an honors class. "That was the hardest year,'' she said.

This time, Kelii and her mom have notified her teachers that the stress of the deployment could cause a dip in grades. Thanks to the Teen Panel, she'll also have peers to turn to who understand what she's going through.

"We don't know anyone else in Bloomington that's a military kid," her mom, Barb Kelii, said. "Now she has a network of friends from Shakopee to Rochester. We're hoping the Teen Panel brings out more."

The group aims to get more than 100 Minnesota teens to a June summit for activities and sessions on how to cope with a parent's deployment.

"We heard it all the time, 'There's nothing for teens, there's nothing for teens,'" said Amber Runke, program specialist for Operation Military Kids, which oversees the panel with the Minnesota National Guard. "It really is a big push in the last few years on military families. If the family isn't supported, the service member is not able to do well."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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