Mrs. Mullen: Military Children Deserve Respect, Support
By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 24, 2011 Military children need and deserve the nation’s utmost respect and support as they continue to weather a decade of war, the wife of the nation’s top military officer said here yesterday.
“I do not believe, and have not believed for quite some time, that there are many issues more important to the future of our armed forces -- indeed to the future of our country -- than those confronting military children today,” said Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mullen offered a snapshot of the challenges confronting military children, both in and out of the classroom, for attendees of a roundtable discussion on the education of military children, one of the culminating events of a summit called “Building a Grad Nation: Partnerships for Student Success.”
Many military children have known only war, and the nation has much to learn about the long-term effects that stress will have on this generation, Mullen noted. “But we do know the effects will be significant,” she added.
Last year, doctors wrote more than 300,000 prescriptions for psychological medications for military youth under age 18, Mullen said. And the issue of suicide is ongoing and of great concern, she added.
“We are seeing growing numbers of suicide attempts among family members, a trend as worrisome as the one we are seeing in the ranks,” she said.
Mullen cited a Rand Corp. study that examined military children’s development across a range of social, emotional and academic areas. She said researchers found that across all age groups, military children reported significantly higher levels of emotional difficulties than children in the general population. Additionally, older children had more difficulty with school and exhibited a higher level of problem behaviors, including fighting, while younger children had more symptoms of anxiety and stress, she said.
It’s evident that some of the stress on military children is manifesting itself in the classroom as poor grades, inattention, aggression and even overachievement, Mullen said. To some degree, she added, all can be signs of a child under duress and in need of support.
“The classroom can be and should be a haven of learning and growth and development,” she said. “I ask only that it can also be a place where military children can find the acceptance they need and the respect and understanding they so richly deserve.”
To better support military children, Americans must begin to bridge the ever-growing military-civilian divide, she noted.
Mullen recalled a story she heard about an airman preparing for overseas duty. His daughter’s friend asked her where her dad was heading. “Guantanamo Bay,” she answered. “Oh, my goodness,” her friend shrieked. “What did he do?”
“This disconnect with America … is quite tragic for us all,” Mullen said.
Mullen noted that her husband speaks frequently on the topic. “He knows the military is some 40 percent smaller than it was when the Berlin wall came down,” she said. “And so he says, ‘We’re not coaching in Little League; we’re not attending local churches; we’re not living in neighborhoods. People who used to know us don’t know us anymore.’”
The reality is fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s population serves in the military, she said. Still, Americans must keep service members and their families at the forefront.
“When America no longer knows her troops, she can do little in all practicality to support them in the way they need it most,” Mullen said. “We aren’t at that point yet, of course, and I hope we don’t ever get there.”
If that should happen, however, Mullen said her greatest fear is that military families will be the quickest to drop out of sight.
“Ironically, it would be their toughness -- that resilience of which they are so proud -- that may hasten, if not ensure, their anonymity, so fearful they have become in asking for help,” she said.
Families in need of psychological counseling aren’t asking for it out of fear that doing so would negatively affect their spouse’s military career, Mullen said. Yet, she added, she’s heard of spouses so fraught with worry that they refuse to leave their homes, pay their bills or care for their children. And she’s seen children “tough as nails on the outside, but inside they ball themselves up, shut themselves off from a world they know can crumble at a moment’s notice,” she added.
“It’s a special kind of pride and a special kind of fear they labor under,” she said, noting that more than 900,000 military children have had a parent deploy multiple times. These children don’t know if their mom or dad will survive the day, Mullen said, and they face this fear over prolonged periods of time. And, unlike children of police officers or firefighters, it’s a fear that isn’t relieved at night when their parent walks in the door. Their parent won’t walk through the door for a year at a time, she said.
“And when he does, it’s a pretty safe bet he won’t be quite the same guy as when he left,” she said, noting that the returning parent may also have emotional and physical challenges.
For other children, their parent may never walk through the door again. “How do these kids reconcile that?” Mullen said. “How can they dare share that dreadful experience with others for whom such sacrifices are alien?”
Mullen asked the audience to imagine a life with the added worry of receiving a knock on the door with the worst news imaginable, “and no one on either side of the classroom, let alone the neighborhood, understands.”
“These are the challenges I ask you consider,” she told the audience. “These are the problems I ask you to solve, and the shoes I ask you to walk in, if only for a few days.”