Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Month of the Military Child

April is a special month in our house for several reasons, one of which is because it is the Month of the Military Child. There are almost 1.8 million children with a parent in the U.S. military. These children grow up facing challenges unique to the military lifestyle: frequent moves, absence of a parent, and possibly even the loss of a parent. It's a tough life. When you're living everyday life, it's sometimes easy to forget how difficult growing up in a military family can be for children. I know that I am only now starting to realize how many aspects of our life are affected by Jason's military service.

As my children are getting older, I see the beginnings of friendships between them and other school-age kids. And, inevitably, they will say many, many good-byes to these special friends. Since moving here, my kids have become very close friends with our next-door neighbors. They are a military family as well, and in just a few weeks they will be moving to the east coast. Saying good-bye to a best friend is pretty difficult for an 8-year old.

Our frequent moves have meant that our children have grown up without much contact with their extended family. If you ask my 4 oldest children where "home" is, you're likely to hear 4 different answers. Matthew was born in Virginia and has lived in 7 different states. Joshua was born in California and has lived in 6 different states. It's a stark contrast to the way I grew up, living in the same state for more than 20 years.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge of military life is the threat of deployment. It's always there. Some of these kids have lived through 3, 4, or 5 deployments already. Even when their parent is home, the possibility of another deployment is a constant fear. And, as I learned last year, even when you think your kids are handling it really well, it's always affecting them more than you realize. You can't just take a parent away for a year at a time and not have it change your life in some way. It's hard to promise your kids that Daddy will be coming home when it's something you are so unsure of yourself.

The greatest difficulty for any military child comes with the loss of a parent. I don't know how any parent explains to their child that Daddy (or Mommy) is not coming home. It breaks my heart to think of all the families who have had to cope with such unimaginable loss. And yet, in the military, it is all around you. One of our neighbors lost her husband last summer. When your kids are surrounded by other military kids, they know children who have lost a parent. You have to explain things to your kids that you can't really explain. Jason is on funeral detail right now and my boys are old enough to understand what Daddy is doing. (And honestly, I don't know how Jason can handle attending funerals of fallen soldiers, because it must incredibly difficult to face those families under such difficult circumstances.) Military life can't be easy for a kid. That's for sure. Of course, the military life has plenty of good parts too. Along with the challenges come opportunities that make us forget about the difficulties. Military children learn about service to our country and they gain strength from overcoming all of the challenges they face. They get to travel and see the world, living in different places and learning about different cultures.

There is also a special bond among military kids. I've seen it. It's that sense of understanding when your friend down the street matter-of-factly states that her dad just deployed again. It's that feeling of relief when your best friend's dad returns from deployment and life returns to "normal" for their family. One of the biggest blessings for our family has been ending up in this neighborhood where we live right now, surrounded by military families. There are four 8-year olds on our block that are all good friends and are all military brats. There are also four 4-year old girls that have become inseparable. And there are almost a dozen other military kids on our street that have become good friends with my children. Having friends that understand the military life has been a priceless gift for us.

This month is a reminder of all that these kids go through as they grow up in military families. When my backyard is full of a dozen, loud, hungry, energetic kids from all over the neighborhood, I'm going to make it a point to remember how awesome these kids are and how much strength they have. They really are special!

To all of you who grew up with parents in the military, thank you for your sacrifice.

Any ideas about how to make these military kids feel appreciated?

All my fellow military families, what are you doing to celebrate this month?
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