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Treating Family War Wounds

New McLean-Based Group Aids Children Enduring a Parent's Deployment

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C01

Somehow Erica Godfrey had convinced herself that if she learned the alphabet, her father would be hurt or killed.

Erica made that decision last summer after two men in her father's Virginia National Guard unit were killed in action in Afghanistan. She was working on the alphabet at the time, studying hard so one day she could read the letters that her father, Sgt. Timothy Godfrey, sent to their Prince William County home, each beginning the same way -- "Dear Miss Erica."

The nonprofit Our Military Kids helps support such families as Ti Godfrey and her children Erica, 7, and Cuu, 12, in their Prince William home. (Photos Jahi Chikwendi -- The Washington Post)

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Trying to figure out things for herself with a kindergartner's mind and worried about her own father, she came to the conclusion that her learning was connected to the deaths of the two soldiers. So she simply stopped. And forgot, or at least pretended to forget, everything she had learned.

Although the family was struggling financially because of the deployment, Erica's mother, Ti Godfrey, quit her job at the post office to spend more time with Erica and her son, Cuu, 12, whose grades had plummeted from A's to D's and even an F.

Now, there is an organization to help the Godfreys and other families get their children through the hardships of deployment. In January, Linda Davidson and Gail Kruzel founded the nonprofit group Our Military Kids in McLean, with a pilot program for the Winchester-based 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment of the Virginia National Guard.

The group is offering as much as $500 to each child in kindergarten through 12th grade to help pay for activities, including athletics, tutoring and dance lessons. The Boeing Co. donated $35,000 and General Dynamics $25,000 to fund the pilot program. This month, the group awarded its first grant to Sgt. Roy LeHew's daughter, Amber, of Augusta, W.Va.; the $327 grant pays for membership in a high school ski club.

"We feel that it is very important to keep children engaged in activities they were involved in before their parent was deployed," Davidson said. "It's important to keep life as normal as possible so children can continue to be children."

Some families have gotten children involved in activities to keep them occupied, and to allow them to burn off energy that might otherwise be used to worry about their soldier parent or take on roles in the family -- like becoming "the man of the house" -- that are not suitable for young children.

Ti Godfrey has applied for a grant for Erica to take dance lessons this summer that she otherwise could not afford. She also has asked Our Military Kids to pay for the rental cost of a violin for Cuu, who began taking classes in the fall.

Children deal with the prolonged loss of a parent in different ways. Grades suffer, children are rude to their parents more than usual, emotions come out sideways or sometimes not at all.

There is no official count of the number of children of deployed soldiers. The Pentagon said there are 72,398 deployed active-duty soldiers who have children, and 50,738 reserve-duty personnel who left children behind to go to war.

"I've heard stories with husbands being deployed for an extended period of time, 12 to 18 months," said Davidson, "and children are having a difficult time coping with the separation and they need to be engaged in constructive activities. There was a concern that it would be difficult for families to justify taking money from the family budget to let them be involved in extracurricular activities."

Timothy Godfrey works as an instructor at Manassas Community College, and the family has taken a hit financially because his National Guard paycheck is now considerably less. When his wife quit her job to help Cuu and Erica through their rocky time at school, they endured even more financial stress.

Despite the hardship, Godfrey said she knew she had to quit her job and focus her attention fully on her children after a meeting with Erica's kindergarten teacher.

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