How Are Military Kids Really Doing?

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Military children pose for a photo during the Military Child Parade at Barksdale Air Force Base
Military children pose for a photo during the Military Child Parade at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, April 1, 2021. (Jonathan E. Ramos/U.S. Air Force)

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.

"It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?"

When I was growing up, this was a regular question I heard as I sat watching the local news.

Looking back, it was a fair question to ask in the early 1990s, long before helicopter or attachment parenting was a thing. Apparently, the parents of that generation, the leaders of our nation, needed reminders that they had children.

Today, millennials and younger generations no longer receive late-night reminders about our parental responsibilities. We are hyper-aware of our perceived ability to make or break our children's futures with the simplest of decisions. COVID only amplified that awareness.

We, as parents, had to suddenly wear all the hats -- caregiver, teacher, doctor, playmate, chauffeur, janitor, line cook and so much more. But raising military kids asks even more of parents.

As military spouses, we do all the above, often alone and engulfed by the fear of losing our spouse in the line of duty or, worse yet, a seemingly avoidable training accident. We worry we will have to learn to become even more for our children. We worry about what growing up with one less parent would be like for them and whether our adult decisions have doomed their futures.

"Everything about school is harder for me than my peers," said Harmony Jones, 17, who is set to attend the University of Southern California and has a dad in the Marine Corps. "My peers have been at that same school their entire life and made close connections with teachers, coaches and students that give them an edge I will never be able to experience."

Harmony is the kind of military kid who makes the news. She is a leader in her school and is set to study human biology as a pre-medicine major this fall. She has accomplished a lot. But has her parent's job status held her and other military kids back, or propelled them forward? And have the past 20 years of military community efforts to improve the lives of military children actually helped?

Born into a Nation at War and Surviving a Pandemic

The majority of the roughly 1.6 million military kids were born into a nation at war. But just because the military pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021, that doesn't mean the military ops tempo has slowed or that the struggles of military children are new. By some measures, troops are away from home now more than ever.

"They are gone all the time. When they're not deployed, they're training," said Destiny Huff, social media manager for Partners in PROMISE, special education advocate, military spouse and mother of two children ages 4 and 6. Destiny's husband serves in combat arms in the Army, a high ops tempo service that resulted in him missing the births of both of their sons. When he's home, he works in shifts, regularly working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., prompting worry in their younger son who is only now aware that his dad's job is different. "You can tell that in his face that he's kind of questioning, 'What is it going to be like?'" Huff said.

Huff's son regularly asks her, "Is daddy coming home tonight? Or are we going to see him later?" said Huff. "The field trainings and the school trainings and being gone 24 hours are still affecting those younger kiddos."

This questioning prompted Destiny to take a step back from her professional pursuits and become the stable figure in her sons' lives. She built in safety and looked for social-emotional resources to support her sons as they begin to understand what life as a military kid is like.

The Huffs are not the only parents of military children who are forced to find creative ways to establish consistency for their children in the ever-changing military lifestyle.

Military children experience numerous struggles throughout their lives that they are forced to overcome. The COVID-19 pandemic asked military families to "embrace the suck" on repeat. They were forced to move to new locations that did not have homes for them. Deployments were extended. Schools stopped delivering special education services. Separations were even more unpredictable due to travel restrictions.

"The pandemic was very hard on military kids," said Besa Pinchotti, the chief executive officer of the National Military Family Association (NMFA), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting military families. "[They] jumped into online classrooms with a bunch of faces that they didn't recognize, and then got out of that and jumped into classrooms with those same kids who they'd never met in person."

But unlike adults who can solve their own problems, military kids must rely upon their parents and schools to get them the help they need. But what happens when the needed resources don't exist?

Mental Health Shortages Impact Military Kids

"We put out three offers for a school counselor. We have yet to have one of them accept the offer," wrote my child's school principal in an email.

One of my children, who will remain nameless, had decided it was appropriate to write D-U-C-K on a recent math test but instead of a D, she used an "F." Fingers pointed to my active-duty husband as the source of her understanding and knowledge of this word. She wasn't in trouble. She was a child who started her school career online during COVID and was acting out to get attention from her teachers. At home, she spent countless nights crying to us about bullying, friendships and a broken heart.

My research with Partners in PROMISE has taught me that despite being raised to think that doctors and schools are proactive in their care and education of our children, they often do not have the bandwidth to be the doctors and educators we see on TV. Schools have limited resources, forcing them to be reactionary. It is up to parents to be squeaky wheels.

So, I reluctantly embraced my inner Karen and politely emailed her school asking when she would see the counselor. It had been a month, and she needed to talk to somebody. She saw someone a day after I emailed. And I'm far from the only military parent who has felt this shortage.

"We're seeing families wait even longer for care, which is not what you would expect post-pandemic," said Austin Carrigg, CEO of Exceptional Families of the Military, a nonprofit that offers support groups for military families enrolled in the Defense Department's Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) designed to assist service members whose spouse or child has special medical or learning needs through coordinating detailing so families are not without necessary care. "Everything could be done by telehealth for quite a while ... so we were getting a lot more appointments."

According to Blue Star Families' 2022 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 16% of active-duty military families with children enrolled in grades K-12 wanted their child to receive mental health care, but they did not. The primary reason given by families was that they could not find a provider. Partners in PROMISE's latest survey showed that four out of 10 military EFMP children waited for mental health care after their most recent permanent change-of-station (PCS) move, with wait times averaging 4.5 months.

"The most important thing is giving military kids and teens a seat at the table," said NMFA's Pinchotti. In 2021, NMFA partnered with Bloom: Empowering the Military Teen, a nonprofit founded by and for military teens. They continued their partnership by polling military teens and young adults in 2022. According to Pinchotti, NMFA found:

  • 43% of those who needed help were able to see a provider for their mental or behavioral health concerns.
  • 13% felt that they needed care but did not receive it. Of that 13%:
    • 64% didn't tell their parents about their mental or behavioral health concerns.
    • 19% said their parents couldn't find them that provider.
    • 17% said their parents were unwilling to find a provider.

"Kids want to connect, they want to belong, and they're within the critical first two weeks [of school," said Tara Gleason, director of programs for the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC). "The No. 1 thing that students say that they're afraid of is sitting alone at lunch."

While all kids struggle to find belonging, military children experience this struggle more frequently and are of a generation that no longer stigmatizes asking for help. But what happens when they ask for help and the adults in their lives can't do a thing?

Helping Military Students by Slowly Fixing the Fixable

"Compared to 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, 20 years ago, it is night and day, the difference between what educators understand about military-connected students," said Stacy Huisman, military family liaison working in a Virginia-based public school who has been educating military children for a decade. "The high school and middle school age groups of military-connected kids are probably struggling the most, because it's just the nature of the age. ... You can't curate a program that can solve loneliness."

And that is perhaps why the programs and supports that exist to support military children are focused on the things that can be curated.

In 2001, the Army wanted to understand what was happening with military teens. Along with MCEC, it studied secondary education transitions to "improve predictability" for military students. This work ultimately informed the creation of the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, run by the Military Interstate Children's Compact Commission (MIC3). The compact is intended to help fix the fixable by easing school transitions, such as helping with transferring records and attendance forgiveness tied to military service, which research shows negatively impacts student mental health and educational achievement.

Despite existing, it is unclear how the compact is helping, at least partially because military families do not know about it. According to Blue Star Families, 74% of parents with school-aged children were not familiar with the compact.

This may be why MIC3's national office only received a total of 51 requests for help in 2022. And of those requests, only 39% were issues covered by the Compact, leaving the majority of concerns unresolved.

The Byproducts of Serving as a Military Child

"I think a benefit of being a military child is the opportunity to experience dozens of unique communities and morals during your childhood, and being able to shape your beliefs from them," Jones, the 17-year-old, said. "I also feel that being a military child has helped me mature earlier than most of my peers and helped me clearly distinguish between my needs and wants."

Resilience is a byproduct of overcoming hardship, something many military kids often reluctantly possess.

"I was seeing children who were mature beyond their years, many of them very articulate," said Dr. Kim Hunt, who wrote her dissertation on military students and contributed to countless Blue Star Family research projects. Dr. Hunt observed military students' ability to cross cultures, both international and domestic, moving in and out of environments easily and how this ability started to inform how military kids saw themselves. "They would say, 'I managed to do it once. I managed to do it twice. I managed to do it three times. I can do it again,'" said Hunt.

However, the presence of resilience may not be enough if the DoD wants to help make sure military kids thrive.

"I wish the military community understood how insignificant I feel at times," said Harmony. And she isn't the only one who wishes the sacrifices of military children were seen.

"I want the civilian community to know that we exist, and it's not just the person actively in the military that has to make sacrifices," said Harmony's brother, Jett Jones, 16.

Resources

Bloom - the authentic voice of military teens

Blue Star Families - data and community programs

Exceptional Families of the Military (EFM) - provides community support for EFMP families

Military Children Education Coalition (MCEC) - Military Student Consultant offers customized support for students and resources for educators

National Military Family Association (NMFA) - Operation Purple Camps & Research with Bloom

Partners in Promise - provides data and resources for special education parents

MIC3 - Information about the Compact

Jennifer Barnhill is the chief operating officer and lead researcher for Partners in PROMISE, editor-in-chief of the National Military Spouse Network Day of Advocacy Steering Committee and the military spouse liaison on The League of Wives Memorial Project.

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