Coping With Their Parents' War

More than 800,000 military parents have been deployed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the separation can be hard on their young children.
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

For Cody Caudill, it "wasn't that big of a deal" when his dad went to Bosnia in 2001 with the Maryland National Guard. In 2003, Robert Caudill served close to home at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Two years later, he went to war.

Cody, now 15, said he walked out of class when a teacher discussing the Iraq war started "slamming the soldiers." He learned of the death of three soldiers in his dad's convoy by reading an instant message exchanged between his parents. Scarlett Caudill watched her son lose interest in sports and Boy Scouts and flop in front of the television in what she called a "mild bout of depression."

The Iraq deployment stunk, Cody said. "I knew what was going on there," Cody said. "If I was just sitting there, it would float in my mind."

Cody's dad is among hundreds of thousands of parents who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a military that has a greater percentage of moms and dads than it has had in any other conflict, in part because of reliance on the National Guard and reserves and in part because of the growing number of women in uniform, according to the Pentagon and military historians. Of approximately 263,000 people deployed overseas, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 43 percent are parents.

Children with a parent at war are vulnerable to anxiety or depression, mental health experts say. Homecomings are hard, too, especially when parents return with physical or emotional wounds. In today's wars, unlike those of the past, that cycle is repeated for many families. Of 808,000 parents deployed since Sept. 11, 2001, according to Pentagon data, more than 212,000 have been away twice. About 103,000 have gone three or more times.

"You're talking about a generation of kids who are hurt from the impact of multiple deployments," said Lynne Michael Blum, author of "Building Resilient Kids," an online course for educators through a Johns Hopkins University initiative to help military children. "The first deployment can be hard, but parents report their kids bounce back. But now as families are facing multiple deployments, the research shows that families never have the chance to readjust back to normal. When they're supposed to be focused on just being kids, they are focused on when Dad or Mom are going back into danger again."

At age 6, Gabriel Rizer understood enough in 2005 to ask his father whether an upcoming tour in Iraq with his reserve unit would be dangerous. "We had moments where he broke down crying, wishing Daddy would come home," Monique Rizer said. "He was mad at the Army."

Rizer said she told her son that "Daddy was helping another country." At Christmas, the Fairfax County family set a place for him at the table.

Maj. Keith Lemmon, an Army pediatrician, creates videos aimed at helping teenagers and younger children deal with a parent's deployment. Lemmon saw young patients at Fort Bragg, N.C., with headaches, stomachaches and other symptoms he attributed to stress. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called on civilian pediatricians to be aware of the emotional needs of children from military families.

In a new "Sesame Street" video for military families, Elmo turns to his mom and friends to help him through his dad's deployment -- and then a second deployment. In another video, a bilingual Muppet named Rosita reunites with her dad, who comes home in a wheelchair. "The thing I will miss the most is dancing with Papi," she says.

Cody was a junior counselor at a Maryland National Guard camp in June near his Harford County home, where he swam, had water-gun and Silly String fights and made friends who understood.

Experts point to sports, clubs and friendships with peers going through the same thing as ways to ease the strain. Much also depends, experts say, on how the parent at home handles the separation.

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