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'Military Children': Their Struggles, Sacrifices And Strengths

Dec 28, 2014
Originally published on January 5, 2015 9:31 am

We've all seen the photo: A soldier in fatigues stoops down to hug his child one last time before heading off to a war zone.

We may have an idea of what comes next for the soldier, but rarely do we discuss what's next for the child.

Member station WAMU in Washington, D.C., brings us the culmination of nearly a year of reporting by Kavitha Cardoza in a series called Military Children. Cardoza's documentary explores the challenges facing our nation's nearly 2 million military children.

The series includes an hourlong documentary, animated video, radio and written stories from all around the world. See the trailer for the series below.

Copyright 2015 WAMU-FM. To see more, visit http://wamu.org.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This week, NPR will look at the education of children whose parents are in the military. On average, these kids move up to nine times before they graduate high school. Kavitha Cardoza from member station WAMU found that changing cities and countries so often is exciting for many military children, but it also means constantly being the new kid.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Fifteen-year-old Emily Budd goes to public school in New Kent, Virginia. We're talking in her bedroom as she plays with her pet rabbit.

EMILY BUDD: Chloe. Come Chloe. She's my therapy bunny.

CARDOZA: Emily's father is in the military. Military brats, as they call themselves, know what that means. In the last few years, she's called several places home - South Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, Armenia. They moved back to the U.S. a year and a half ago.

EMILY: When someone like me comes in who's been to 23 countries and speaks three other languages, I'm the oddball out.

CARDOZA: Many military children are resilient, but there are also a lot like Emily who experience difficulties. Research suggests just having a parent deployed could increase a child's chance of depression, bullying and suicidal thoughts by up to 50 percent above a nonmilitary child. Having to explain herself constantly wore Emily down.

EMILY: And it just, like, came on as this wave of resentment and so I started to cut.

CARDOZA: She would cut or injure herself.

EMILY: I got really depressed.

CARDOZA: You were 13?

EMILY: Mhm.

CARDOZA: And how long did that period go on for?

EMILY: It's still going on actually. I ended up in the hospital January 21 'cause I was going to try to kill myself.

CARDOZA: Emily planned to overdose on sleeping pills. To make a long, traumatic story short, she was hospitalized for a week. She's now on the road to recovery. She's in counseling, has made a few friends and pours her heart into writing poetry.

What would have made it better for you?

EMILY: An unlimited supply of money so I could buy plane tickets back whenever I wanted to. I don't know. I mean, back in Europe and in Armenia, like, I had a distinct place. Like, does that make sense? I just knew where I belonged. But then I got to the U.S., and none of these people cared about where I'd been. I didn't know how to react. I think that was the biggest part of it - was that nobody understood me.

CARDOZA: The majority of military children attend public schools. And to make transitions easier, states have signed onto a voluntary compact, which makes certain allowances for active-duty families. For example, school districts may waive course requirements for graduation if a student has already taken a similar course in a different state. The compact also promises more flexibility in the enrollment age and continued special education services when students change schools.

But often, these rules haven't filtered down to the local level. So school liaison officers, like Barbara Williams at Army base Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, helped bridge the gap between civilian educators and military families.

BARBARA WILLIAMS: I get tons of calls, literally tons of calls.

CARDOZA: She says one student moved from a small, rural school to one with nearly 600 students in his grade.

WILLIAMS: His grades dropped tremendously. He was making A's and B's in his school to D's and F's in this school.

JUDY CROMARTIE: I've known high school students to eat lunch in the bathroom the first three days they're at school. They don't know anybody, or they just don't eat.

CARDOZA: That's Judy Cromartie who helps children transitioning to public schools around Navy Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida. She and other liaisons pair students with lunch buddies, tutors, afterschool activities. And sometimes, Cromartie jokes, she has to solve problems that have nothing to do with education. For example, the local public school district canceled the bus service because of budget cuts. And students on base had to start walking to school. She says it was only a few blocks.

CROMARTIE: However, to get there, they would've had to walk by one strip club, walk by another strip club before they got to this middle school. So I called the district office and suggested that maybe 14-year-old boys - that would not be a good way to start their day. It's just a thought. (Laughter).

CARDOZA: It might depend on whether you're the school liaison officer or the 14-year-old boy.

CROMARTIE: (Laughter).

CARDOZA: Some school districts, like Virginia Beach City Public Schools, already have a well-developed support system in place for these children. Jill Gaitens is the Director of military support services.

JILL GAITENS: We have Oceana Naval Air base, Portsmouth Naval Center, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Fort Story Little Creek.

CARDOZA: The Virginia Beach City Public School system educates 20,000 military children. Every branch of the military has a presence here. But even with all these children, Gaitens says teachers sometimes don't understand that even a simple question like where are you from can be confusing to a military child. She gives the example of her own military family.

GAITENS: The military student may not feel like they're from anywhere. I'm from Michigan. My husband's from Wisconsin. I have one son from Arizona, one son from California, one son from Okinawa.

CARDOZA: Virginia Beach has hired additional counselors, created military mentoring programs and provided more teacher training because what happens outside the school affects the children inside. A few months ago, there was a helicopter crash into the water just off Virginia Beach.

GAITENS: There were four service members that passed away that day. For a little while, we didn't know the names of those service members. But all of our students knew that a helicopter crashed. Many of our students have fathers that fly in those helicopters and fly in those jets.

CARDOZA: Seventeen-year-old Christopher Penn at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach is making a mousetrap car. And there's a lot of sawing and nails and talk of wheel alignment. Christopher wants to do well on the military aptitude test so his math skills have to be good.

CHRISTOPHER PENN: I want to serve my country. I've had this idea since the seventh grade.

CARDOZA: Christopher is pretty open about his military connections. But Jill Gaitens says students often don't volunteer that information because they don't want to be different. So the Virginia Beach school system has added a simple box on registration forms that now allows them to track military children in school databases.

Mary Keller, president of the Military Child Education Coalition, is pushing for a similar system nationwide so schools know where to direct resources.

MARY KELLER: Everybody can say, well, we're military friendly. Great. What does that mean? We are in this black whole of data of understanding, you know, about the children whose parents are serving.

CARDOZA: But experts say these efforts need to be more intentional and coordinated and scaled up if we want to reach the hundreds of thousands of military children across the U.S. With less than one percent of the population serving in the military, there's a cultural divide that needs to be bridged. And it isn't just the responsibility of schools.

Like many military children, Christopher Penn has family members who've served, and he can't wait to wear the Marine Corps uniform himself.

PENN: I feel proud, you know. That uniform looks great. So I know my girlfriend will love. I'll love it.

CARDOZA: I'm Kavitha Cardoza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.