The South Sound boasts enough military children to populate their own city. Joint Base Lewis-McChord estimates its soldiers and airmen currently have 24,600 dependents, from newborn through college age.
Out of their mouths comes wisdom beyond their years, a resilience shaped by having to move often, make new friends, say goodbye to deploying parents and care for siblings. If you take time to listen, however, these young people will tell you they can't do it alone. They lean on teachers, counselors and mentors.
Seventeen-year-old Kayla Sarver, a student at Lakes High School, gave this simple advice to adults who want to assist military kids through their struggles: “Tell them ‘it's OK. I know it hurts. But when you fall down, get right back up.’”
She spoke Friday as part of a panel of South Sound military students. The five plain-speaking adolescents stole the show at a Lakewood summit that also brought together social service professionals and others who support military families.
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Growing up behind JBLM's gates or in suburban apartment complexes, children of service members are often overlooked or lumped into the vaguely understood stereotype of “military brat.”
But April is the Month of the Military Child, a time to build awareness. Listening, and responding with empathy, is the least that civilian neighbors can do for families who shoulder the weight of the nation’s defense.
There are roughly 1.3 million school-age U.S. children with parents in the Armed Forces. Thousands live in Pierce and Thurston counties; in the Clover Park School District alone, 4,531 military kids are enrolled this year, representing 35 percent of the student body.
The heavy deployments of JBLM units rotating to Iraq and Afghanistan ended about three years ago, providing a respite for families who had grown accustomed to living apart. But bridging the emotional distance doesn’t happen overnight. A new Rand study of more than 2,700 families over a three-year cycle found that teens “reported significantly lower-quality relationships with the deployed parent when the parent came home.”
Many kids share households with parents coping with wounds or injuries, including post-traumatic stress. Many live with a parent who’s making the bumpy transition from a downsized Army to an unfamiliar civilian life. All have seen their family's income threatened by the annual game of congressional brinksmanship known as sequestration.
It stands to reason, then, that military-connected youths are more likely than civilian peers to suffer from depression, consider suicide, use alcohol and drugs, and possess weapons, according to a study published last year in JAMA Pediatrics.
Schools provide the most crucial touch points, but the churn of new teachers and classmates makes it hard to build relationships; the average military child attends from seven to nine schools before graduating high school.
More than 100 college education programs have joined a project to help K-12 teachers focus on the unique needs of military students. Three local universities – Pacific Lutheran, St. Martin's and the Evergreen State College – exhibited leadership by signing on.
Jill Biden, an educator and the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, praised the project at a forum last week, saying it “could have far-reaching implications into what is needed to support the resiliency and adaptability of military children."
Other positive steps in recent years include Washington’s signing of an interstate compact for military students, which has smoothed perennial challenges such as graduation credits and records transfers. Washington last year also joined more than 40 states in implementing the Common Core national academic standards, a godsend for families who load the U-Haul every two years.
For adults who don’t work in education, touching the life of a military child can happen indirectly, such as by coaching or volunteering, or by directly contributing to groups such as the National Military Family Association.
There’s nothing magic about doing it in April. Kids in these families crave support and understanding all year long.