There are approximately 1.9 million children in the United States with parents who serve or have served in the military. 765,000 of them have active-duty parents, and 225,000 have parents that are currently deployed.
The environment that military children grow up in is very different from most of their civilian counterparts; active-duty military families move an average of once every two to three years. This nomadic lifestyle, coupled with the benefits and challenges of military culture, shape these children into who they are and how they will function as adults.
Being a “military brat,” or a child of a service member, comes with a lot of advantages. These kids are often more traveled than the average American adult. The experience of living in many different places and being exposed to new people and cultures is invaluable.
Rebecca Waller, daughter of Retired Army CW3 Leo J. Fulton, credits who she is today to her frequent travel as a kid.
“It taught me to be fearless.”
“I am an avid traveler to this day and number one on my bucket list is to set foot on every continent,” Waller said.
Waller was born in Ancon, Panama and got her first passport when she was just six weeks old. Her family bounced from New Jersey, to Walla Walla, Washington, to Ft. Lewis, Washington. Right as she was set to start kindergarten, Waller moved to the Philippines, where she attended the International School in Manila.
“My most vivid childhood memories and the foundation of who I am is rooted in Manila,” Waller said.
“Seeing some of the poverty firsthand in the Philippines when I was a kid affected me; it made me more empathetic to people in tough situations in other parts of the world. I don’t know if I would have had that if I hadn’t been raised overseas and been able to see it up close.”
Changing schools is a very common event for military children. The disruption of their education can lead to trouble in school, and loss of friendships can make it hard for them to form new connections. When Waller came back to Ft. Lewis in the second grade, she experienced the opposite.
“I think I got really good at figuring things out on my own.”
“Not only was I an Army brat, I was also an only child, so that combination made me a fiercely independent, self-sufficient person.”
Naturally an introvert, switching schools forced Waller to make friends, and she learned not to be shy — something she still carries with her today. It also made her adaptable to change; she has what she calls an “it is what it is” attitude.
Despite not always having a consistent place to call home, the military offers families a sense of structure and stability that can’t be found anywhere else. These kids have parents with jobs and steady incomes, health care, safe housing, access to good education systems and early intervention programs, as well as support from the military community.
Struggles that come with being in a military family are often in the form of separation.
Over two million Americans have a parent who served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. Deployments typically last a year, which is a long time for a child to have no in-person contact with their parent(s). Children with a deployed parent are statistically more likely to experience a decrease in academic performance and have symptoms consistent with depression and anxiety. Signs can include excessive worry about the deployed parent, sleep problems, and frequent physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches. Many children express this by acting out, but parents should also be aware of children who become withdrawn and quiet.
Even separations in early stages of childhood can have an impact. When CW3 Fulton came back from his service in Korea, three-year-old Waller did not remember him.
“My mom and I picked him up from the airport and she says that when he tried to hug me, I hid behind her,” Waller said.
“That was hard on him. He went out of his way to make me feel loved though, and he was very intentional about spending time with me, so the relationship strengthened tremendously.”
A good support system is essential.
Positive school and home environments, as well as healthy and caring relationships, play a huge role in the academic performance and the emotions and behavior of children.
Military kids are resilient. They learn how to adapt to new situations and grow up with a strong sense of honor, duty, sacrifice, and love for their country. Despite the challenges of their upbringing, military children are twice as likely to join the military as civilian children.
Parents, educators, and members of the military community need to be mindful of the impact that the military has on this nation’s children. When they are given the platform to communicate their problems, and consistent love and support from those around them, military kids have all the tools they need to lead successful lives, both in school and out.
To the military kids:
“If you just roll with it, you’ll be fine,” Waller advised.
“Know that a lot of civilian kids you go to school with don’t understand your background, and that’s okay. You’ll grow up and have some pretty awesome memories and experiences that not a lot of kids have. It’s like being in a really special club!”
Rebecca Waller “Military Children Serve, Too.” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/719407/military-children-serve-too/. Walters, Jennifer Marino. “12 Things You Didn’t Know About Military Families.” Care.com, Care.com, 22 Nov. 2016, www.care.com/c/stories/4374/12-things-you-didnt-know-about-military-fami/. “Experts Explain Mental State of Military Children.” Www.army.mil, The United States Army, www.army.mil/article/147786/experts_explain_mental_state_of_military_children.