Military 'Brats' Thrive While Coping With Challenges
By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, April 4, 2006 Deployed to Afghanistan for a year, Army Lt. Col. Timothy Newcomer will miss his son's prom, high school graduation and, a few months later, his departure to college.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Eddie Mitchell shares a few minutes with his 6-year-old son, Desmond, April 4 at Desmond's school. Photo by Elaine Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
But his son, Matt, is not upset in the least. "He loves to be a soldier, and if it makes him happy, it makes me happy," said Matt, a high school senior. "How can I possibly complain that he's not watching me graduate when he's out there sacrificing for our nation?"
As a military child, Matt represents a segment of the military population sometimes referred to as "unsung heroes" because of the level of sacrifice they never signed on the dotted line to make. "Children are really the hidden heroes of the military family," said Julie Coffey, a 20-year counselor at Robert G. Cole Jr./Sr. High School here. "Their sacrifices may not be as visible as the sacrifices of servicemembers, but are no less important.
"I've seen the faces and names change, but the challenges confronting military children always seem to remain the same throughout the years," Coffey said.
The challenges, in part, include frequent moves and subsequent loss of friendships, separation from parents due to temporary duty or deployments, and academic struggles when faced with differing curriculums and state requirements.
"Moving so much has made me cautious," said Keena Fisher, a high school junior who said she has moved so much she can't "count the moves on both my hands." Keena is the daughter of Army Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Scott and wife, Tina.
"I used to find best friends right away, get really close, but then I'd have to move. It was devastating. I don't get as close to people anymore," she said. "I still open up but not as much as I used to."
"The hardest part for me is not making new friends, it's leaving the old ones behind," Matt added. "You know you're never going back. And no matter how hard you try to stay in touch, the friendships drift away over time."
As friendships are lost throughout the years, Coffey said military children protect themselves by learning not to put down roots as quickly or deeply. "They may look like they are making friends, but, for many, it's not the same depth of commitment (as nonmilitary children)."
While the separations can be painful, Coffey said, military children also manage to pick up a positive attribute along the way -- adaptability.
Keena said past moves have better prepared her for future challenges. "When I was younger, change freaked me out, but not now. Moving so much has taught me to deal with transitions better," she said. "When I go to college, I don't think it will be as hard for me as other kids. I know how to adjust to change and feel prepared."
Their ability to adapt has been called upon frequently in recent years, as military children have been confronted with the possibility that their parents could be sent to fight in a war.
Amazingly, Coffey said, many middle and high schoolers take the separation in stride, most likely due to a support system of military friends and families familiar with the pain and struggles.
"I'm here with my family and friends, and my father is alone in Afghanistan having to meet all new people," Matt said. "I realize the separation probably hurts him more than me. I don't think it's right to be selfish or self-indulgent when our parents are fighting for our freedom."
For the most part, even elementary-age children seem to have an uncanny ability to adapt, said Jayne Hatton, Fort Sam Houston Elementary School principal.
"After a while, I just dealt with it," said Marlene Renz, a fifth grader. Renz's father, Lt. Col. Evan Renz, is a surgeon for the Brooke Army Medical Center burn unit on a six-month deployment to Iraq.
"I'm just happy he's coming home soon. It really helps that we can e-mail and talk on the phone a lot," Marlene said.
Some children handle the separation better than others, Hatton said, so most military schools keep a keen eye on their students for signs of stress or depression and offer a variety of programs to help transitioning students. A more widespread concern for elementary students is academics, the principal said.
"The children are coming from schools from throughout the nation and the world with educational experiences that are inconsistent with Texas requirements," Hatton said. "We have to help them adapt to a new environment. It's hard enough to come to a new school without having to struggle academically."
Although confronted by a host of challenges, military children not only survive, they thrive, said Hatton, also a military "brat."
"I've noticed that along with an ability to adapt, military children also have an urge to contribute," she said. "You only have to look around at the contributions of the military in this city to see it. Children pick up the values of their parents."
Keena said she is grateful for the values that have been instilled in her as far back as she can remember. "Being a military kid is a lot of responsibility, but that's a good thing," she said. "I've been raised to be a leader; my mom and dad are leaders. Because you have to cope with a lot more, you can deal with everyday life and situations better."
Matt said he is also grateful for his exposure to different cultures and parts of the world. "I know there are people in small towns who never left their hometowns, never experienced half of what I have," he said.
"It's a small Army," Marlene added. "I've run into people in the hall that I met in other places. I miss my old friends, but I'll always remember them. And I never know if I'll run into them again, too."
The military influence seems to be a lasting one, Coffey said. "A lot of them don't want anything to do with the military when they grow up, but end up in it anyway," she said. "They want to serve their country for the same reasons as their parents."
(Elaine Wilson is assigned to the Public Information Office of Fort Sam Houston, Texas.)