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.
Angela J. Huebner, an associate professor of human development at Virginia Tech who helped lead a study of youths with deployed parents, said: "The kids who were doing well had resources. They had parents they could talk to. They felt supported."
Creativity and technology can help parents bridge the distance with their children. A Toledo company gives out "flat daddies" and "flat mommies," life-size posters of deployed parents. Many soldiers send home video recordings of themselves reading bedtime stories.
Arthur Rizer hid "Star Wars" action figures and other trinkets around the house before he left, and later sent Gabriel treasure maps to find them. For his younger son, Asher, only 1 at the time, Rizer made videotapes of himself teaching colors, shapes and numbers.
Many struggle with how much to tell their kids. As Robert Anderson, a father of three, prepared to leave his job at a West Point, Va., paper mill to patrol in Iraq with the Virginia Army National Guard, one of his twin sons, then 8, asked, "Dad, are you going to get killed?"
Anderson, who returned home in May after a year-long deployment, said he "didn't want to scare the living daylights" out of his son, but he wanted to be honest: "I just said, 'Son, the Lord will walk with me.' "
Once he got to his base in the Persian Gulf region, he called home often and stayed upbeat. "I made it count," he said. "It was, 'Hey, man, how was school today?' "
For parents called on more than once, maintaining relationships can be even more difficult. Soldiers "are missing graduations. They are missing birthdays. They are missing first steps," said Morten Ender, a sociology professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "Now they are missing things multiple times. We don't know what kind of long-term impact that's going to have."
Robert Caudill got home in August 2006, and he has been spending time with Cody, signing up as an assistant Scoutmaster for his son's troop. But he feels a responsibility to his fellow soldiers, too, his wife said, and he plans to volunteer for Kosovo or Afghanistan.
Cody said he is fine with that because his dad expects to do desk work. Plus, Cody said, the military is helping people. "I see the good in it," he said.
With more children in military families under stress, schools are responding. In Virginia Beach, a military hub, June graduation ceremonies were streamed live on the Internet for military families. Marlene Durgin, dean of students at Indian River Intermediate School near the Army's Fort Drum, N.Y., said teachers know that anger, missed homework or missed days often are a sign of a parent's deployment. The school reaches out gently, she said, knowing that many parents shield children from news about war.
Last month, Staff Sgt. Tyler E. Pickett, 28, stepfather of one of Durgin's students, was killed by a car bomb in Iraq. He had been deployed twice before, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. When his body was brought home, a procession went by the school. One teacher asked why students and staff didn't line the street to show respect.
"The majority of our students didn't know we lost a soldier," Durgin recalled saying. "Can you imagine the panic you would feel as a fourth-grader? 'My dad is in Iraq. Is that going to happen to my dad?' "
At Sewells Point Elementary in Norfolk, counselor Gary Sigler meets regularly with groups of children from Navy families.
"My Daddy is going away for a long, long time," said Kyra Benoit, 7, a slight girl who was having trouble sleeping and getting to school on time, in one recent session. Her father left in March for Bahrain.
"We have lots of friends who will help you," Sigler told her.
Kyra crawls into her mother's bed each night after staying up late in case her father calls. She's seen photos of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and thinks her dad might be there. "I tell her, 'He lives in an apartment, he doesn't live in a tent in the sand,' " Chandra Benoit said.
Fairfax County dad Owen Beaudoin, an Army engineer, has been preparing to go to Iraq this month. He has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now the family includes a toddler and a new baby.
Stephanie Beaudoin and 2-year-old Giulia will make a paper chain, one link for each day Owen is away. They'll visit family. And Giulia's dad is leaving a favorite Boston Red Sox cap for his little girl to wear.
While Owen Beaudoin left for training in the spring, mother and daughter started a twice-daily ritual, which they will pick up when he's away. Each morning and evening they pause at his photo, Stephanie Beaudoin said. "We just say, 'Hi, Daddy,' and 'Good night, Daddy.' "