Collateral Damage

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What American news outlet hasn’t carried a heart-wrenching picture of a 5- or 6-year old sobbing uncontrollably as the father or mother deploys to Iraq or Afghanistan? In journalism they call these human interest stories.

But what happens to the children after the camera departs? On that question, there has been very little human interest. And frankly, no one really knows.

It has been nine years and 11 months since the first U.S. troops left home to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces have been deployed to Afghanistan and to Iraq -- six, seven, eight, or even more times. Almost 2 million children have essentially missed much of the past decade with at least one parent.

As the nation prepares to memorialize America’s response to the shocking terrorist attack on the World Trade Center a decade ago, there will be many speeches delivered recognizing the extreme sacrifice of the U.S. soldiers who have been fighting in faraway locations. They will all be characterized as heroes. So it is equally fitting that we take a closer look at the suffering that our country’s prolonged military adventure has had on the lives of their children.

The few available studies on this subject have yielded seemingly conflicting results. Teenage girls are most affected; teenage boys feel the separation most; babies and toddlers won’t remember anything; some little ones may develop attachment problems that will plague them their entire lives; many students’ grades will falter and children will need constant counseling. While leaving for deployment puts severe stress on the family, it does not compare to the difficulty that comes with the soldier’s reintegration into the family.

“The military was late getting started and now is playing catchup,” said Joyce Raezer, head of the 45,000-member National Military Family Association, based in Arlington, Va., which she describes as a spouse-founded group that “nags” the Department of Defense of behalf of support for military families.

“When the first troops were deployed in October 2001, there should have been people getting baseline information,” Raezer said. The military still hasn’t obtained those kinds of statistics.

Meanwhile, the association pushed and prodded the military to do the necessary research and after they didn’t find anyone with “deeper pockets,” the group turned to foundations to raise the money necessary to do their own studies, primarily by the Rand Corp.

The first study involved about 1,500 children who attended special camps for kids of deployed soldiers. The second, and more revealing, study tracked achievement test scores for every Army – regular Army, Reserve and National Guard – child in the states of North Carolina and Washington from 2001 to 2007.

Researchers found that children whose parents had been deployed for a total of 19 months or more showed a significant drop in achievement test scores among elementary and middle school students. Previous studies had indicated that the number of deployments undertaken was the influencing factor, but Rand researcher Anita Chandra said deployments totaling 19 months or more was the determinant for all the children tracked – regardless of rank, seniority, gender, race or age of the Army member.

Chandra said using the achievement tests may not have been the best way to measure achievement because they were not administered at the beginning of the deployment and again at the end, which might have provided better statistics. And while the access to all files within the states provided a large sample, they had no way to check children who moved away to another state.

More research needed

Although the statistical analyses captured most of the headlines for the study, the qualitative portion – which largely involved interviewing teachers and other school administrators – uncovered surprising results.

Foremost, the researchers found, was that if the non-deployed spouse was well prepared -- both emotionally and financially -- to handle the separation, the children also fared better because they picked up clues from the parents.

Spouses who were ill-equipped to handle the lengthy and repeated separation often put their children though experiences that might not have been predicted:

  • Many more school absences were reported. Caregivers often wanted to keep their children close to home as something of a safety blanket.
  • Fewer children completed their homework.  Parents who were suddenly turned into single caregivers had less time, and apparently less interest in helping their children with their homework or making certain that it had been completed.
  • Many spouses left their military housing, where they had a built in support system and many programs available for spouses and children, and returned to their hometowns, where they had no similar support systems. The children had to cope once again with forming new friendships and often the course credits of older children did not transfer into their new school.
  • Children of National Guard and Reserve members were the most isolated.  Oftentimes, neither their schools nor their communities were aware that a parent had been deployed and thus there were no built in support systems for children or spouses.
  • Children also reported new stresses in their lives because of more responsibilities at home in a single-parent household.

Chandra said that much more research needs to be done, especially to track those children who were having trouble to determine if they were able to be get themselves back on track.

A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics found that the children of deployed military parents showed an 11 percent increase in medical visits for mental health or behavioral problems. Pediatric behavioral problems and stress disorders increased 18 percent and 19 percent, respectively. The researchers in that study suggested that the increase in visits may have represented stressors on the parent, rather than the children, noting that mothers tended to take their children in more than fathers whose wives were deployed.

While others studies have focused on school success and mental health problems, Sarah Reed, a graduate student at the University of Washington, examined whether parental deployment prompts adolescents to engage in riskier behavior. She found that in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades, students who had a parent who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in the previous six years were more likely to have smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days, drunk alcohol in the previous 30 days, smoked marijuana in the past 30 days, bullied someone in the past 30 days and engaged in a physical fight in the previous year.

Raezer of the National Military Family Association said that no one, especially those in the military, want their children to be considered as at-risk, but that additional research is needed to determine if deployment contributes to military children being at risk.

At the other end of the age spectrum is research being conducted by Ellen DeVoe of Boston University, which looks at the effects of deployment on very young children. She and other researchers there have a four-year grant from the military to develop a program to smooth reintegration of the service member into the family.

Because most of the military personnel in Massachusetts who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are in the National Guard and Reserves, they are far from base-located support services.  And because many of the previously deployed service members are young, there are a disproportionate number of young children.

DeVoe said the parent’s absence and the stresses on the remaining spouse can affect the small child’s development, especially in building attachments to other people. And it is even more difficult on the child if the parent is deployed multiple times: as soon as the children becomes accustomed to having the  parent at home, the parent is gone again.

The program she and others have developed called Strong Families, Strong Forces involves clinical social workers visiting the military person’s home and intervening to help the members function as a family unit.

The study is now in its fourth year but no results have been published yet.

DeVoe and Raezer said research on the children of deployed service member is important for the military in other ways too. About 40 percent of servicemen come from military families, Raezer said.  If these families and the children of these military families are not happy, “what is going to happen to recruiting in this all volunteer Army?” she asked.