Whenever I talk to another military wife who is going through deployment, I really want to tell her that it’s a lot like breaking in new shoes. That eventually her blisters will heal and her feet will be stronger and tougher for it. And her new shoes – this new experience called deployment – won’t hurt as much. She’ll get used to it. I want to tell her that. But I can’t. Because there is always that one pair of shoes that seems to find new spots on our feet for new blisters, no matter how many times we wear them. And that is a much better description of what deployment is like. Deployment isn’t painful just for wives; it’s a struggle for children as well. New statistics from the Department of Defense show that the number of mental health visits by military children has doubled since the Iraq War first started, from 1 million to 2 million. A Guard wife I know, Tracy, attended a weekend retreat this summer in California that was sponsored by The Coming Home Project, a non-profit organization that offers care and support for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. One of the speakers for that weekend told the group he’d just been talking with their children, located in another room. He had asked a 7-year-old girl how she was doing while her daddy was away in Iraq. “I’m depressed,” she told him. The speaker looked at the group as he asked: “Where do 7-year-olds learn what it means to be depressed? From their parents.” Be sensitive to your child’s fears As parents, we are our children’s best advocates. If we don’t teach them, who will? If we don’t equip them, who will? If we don’t show them how to deal with the bad as well as the good, who will? When my husband deployed, our son was fine until Cliff actually made it to Iraq and he was tasked to work with a special forces group. Suddenly, the web cam we’d become used to during mobilization completely stopped, and so did the phone calls since Caleb was usually asleep when his dad called. Within a month, my usually happy little six-year-old was complaining of tummy aches and having bouts of uncontrollable tears. After a few days of this, I sat down with Caleb to talk. “Caleb, is there anything that’s worrying you?” I asked, sitting down with him in our favorite spot on the couch. He looked down at his hands. A tell-tale sign for Caleb that always tells me when he’s sad. He nodded. “What are you worried about?” His head still down, his voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m worried that Daddy’s going to get shot.” He had dreamed that Cliff had been shot and he’d gone to see him in the hospital. “Daddy gave me a hug,” he told me, through his tears. I tried explaining to him that his dad was a Seabee – a builder – someone who fixed things and built things and helped make things better for others. Yes, his dad carried a gun, but he didn’t use it. Once I talked with Cliff and told him what was going on, he was able to get permission to email home a picture of himself driving a bulldozer. I quickly printed it out and tacked it to Caleb’s wall above his bed. The nightmares stopped. The stomach aches went away, and my little boy was soon acting a lot more like himself. Just like us, our children are going to have struggles when a parent is away. But there are many things you can do to help your children prepare for and cope during a deployment. Here are just a few suggestions. Write notes. Assuming there would be times when Cliff couldn’t call or write home on a regular basis, I bought some miniature note cards and asked him to write short little notes to Caleb that I could pull out and give him on especially hard days. The notes said things like “I love you monkey,” his pet name for our son, or “When I get home, we’ll go to a hockey game.” Though these notes didn’t replace his dad, they did help keep Caleb feeling close to him. Create a bulletin board. We put a large bulletin board over Caleb’s bed which had a map of Iraq and thumb tacks to mark the areas Cliff was in. Notes, letters and postcards went up there as well, including the bulldozer picture. Every night before Caleb went to sleep, he could look up at his board and remember how much his daddy loved him. Keep reminders close by. Right before Cliff left, I gave him and Caleb both dog tags that had special pictures printed on them. Caleb’s was a pic of he and his dad at a hockey game where we’d had a lot of fun. Any time he was really missing his dad, he would wear it to school. You could do the same for little girls, perhaps even using a locket in place of a dog tag. We also made a trip to the mall where Cliff recorded his voice in a special stuffed monkey made just for Caleb. Make special videos. One of our favorite ways Cliff stayed connected to Caleb was a series of short videos we recorded before he deployed. He did special messages for Caleb’s birthday, the last day of school, the first day of school and for times when Caleb might be sad. I played these at the appropriate times and Caleb loved being able to see his dad’s face and hear his voice. Pack care packages together. Let your children help put packages together. Ask them to draw pictures or write special letters. If you have older teens, ask them to write a family newsletter or make a special scrapbook to mail. I know how hard it can be to stay strong for yourself and for your children during a deployment. Sometimes it’s tempting to just want to give up. But when you have children, you can’t give up. You owe it to them as their parent to help them. This doesn’t mean we can’t let a tear or two fall, but it does mean we can’t fall apart on our kids. If we are struggling, we owe it to ourselves and our kids to get the help we need – let’s not pass those burdens on to our children.
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