I was three years old when the Twin Towers fell, and though I don’t remember that day, it changed the path of my life, and the lives of more than two million other military kids like me, who’ve sent a parent off to war these past 12 years.
When Americans remember 9/11 on Wednesday we remember those who died, the heroes, the terror. But there’s also a generation of kids worth thinking about, military kids, whose lives never went back to the way they were.
Today 1.2 million kids have a parent in the military. Some, like my brother and me, had a parent who was on active duty in 2001. Others are children of National Guards or Reservists, whose parents were suddenly called to service. Still others were born to young Americans who joined the military after the attack, because their country needed them.
More than 900,000 military kids have had one or two parents deployed twice or more. In the last 10 years, 10,200 of those children have had an immediate family member die. These are just a few of the impacts of post-9/11 wars.
Military life has built-in challenges, like frequent moves, but wars put that on steroids. It affects even little kids. When I was five years old, I wanted to be part of the Iraq invasion. My plan was to scream really loudly and cripple Saddam Hussein. Then my daddy could come home.
One of my brother’s friend’s imagination was scarier: when his mom picked him up from 4th grade unexpectedly for a dentist appointment, he first thought it meant his deployed dad had been killed. For older kids, the worry can affect our school work as well as our ability to relate to other kids as we take on bigger responsibilities to try to help out the parent who remains at home.
Studies show that repeated and long deployments create stress in military children’s lives — leading some school-age military children to be anxious, worry often and cry more frequently. Even though the wars are winding down, the effects aren’t necessarily over. Psychologists argue that the effects of combat can play out over seven years — these combat years were the formative years for us military kids, so whatever happened in some way will stay with us.
I’ve moved eight times in my 15 years. I’ve left more friends than I can count. My dad has deployed three times since 9/11. This is normal for military kids. I’ve been lucky though, unlike some children I know. Each time my dad’s deployed, he’s come back whole. Not a stranger in a familiar body. Afterward, though, there’s always small things that change. After his last deployment, for example, my dad’s tolerance for forgetfulness vanished.
There are upsides to military life also. I’ve gotten to live in four different countries, to learn about the world and the different people who live in it. Vivian Greentree, research director of the military support organization Blue Star Families points out that military kids often feel a great deal of pride in their parents. We have the benefit of being raised in a community that in many ways is very idealistic, that believes in a “cause greater than self.”
In the military community, we all support each other. But when we can’t support each other, we need other Americans to step in and support us. Sixty-five percent of active duty military families don’t live on military bases, and 700,000 National Guard and Reserve kids live scattered around the country. In every case, military kids need friends and neighbors to help, or at least to be understanding.
Stephen Cozza, a child psychiatrist for Uniformed Services University, and an expert in studies of trauma, told me that studies have shown that higher numbers of Army children have been exposed to neglect during the last decade of repeated combat deployments. I understand this, because frequent moves, the deployments and worry, can make it difficult for parents to give a child the level of attention they might get otherwise.
I asked Sarah Friedman, an expert in military child development at George Washington University about this problem, and she explained that it can be helpful for military children to have an adult other than their parents take personal interest in their well being. I know that adult friends and relatives have made a huge difference in my life.
Military children need someone to be there for them when their parents can’t be. To be the neighbor who watches the child while the military mom runs a sibling to soccer practice. To be home-front heroes, like our friend “Uncle” Michael Wex, who flew across the country to take me and my brother to the movies while our dad was deployed. Other military kids I know agree. Patrick Fairfield, a Marine Corps teen, told me that his aunt always talked to him about staying focused on school. Tristan LeFlore, also a military brat, told me about his teacher who spent extra time with him while his father was deployed.
Although the major war deployments are winding down, the affect of these years remains with us. And for those whose parents still serve, deployments and risks will continue. Military kids need understanding teachers, neighbors, extended family to remember us, too. We need people to spend some extra time, extra understanding, and help lighten the responsibility we’ve been carrying for 12 years.
Sophie Roth-Douquet’s family lives in Germany. Her mother, Kathy Roth-Douquet, is the co-founder of Blue Star Families.