Jack Crider hit a wall during his father's third deployment.
It wasn't just his father's absence, or the prospect of him dying in Iraq. It was the unexpected move, from Virginia to Georgia, that meant the young boy was dealing with his fourth new school just as he started second grade. It was leaving his friends again. It was being the new kid in an unfamiliar neighborhood again. It was the stress of being a military kid who has never known a time without war.
"It was a collision of all of these factors – the perfect storm – at a time when he needed to be connected to his dad," Jill Crider says of her son, who was 8 when his father, Col. Jim Crider, left for his third combat tour in 2009. "He went from a child who loved school to a child who would wake up crying and beg me not to take him to school."
Soon, she was dropping him off at the school and, by the time she returned home, someone was calling to say that Jack was in the counselor's office, distraught. "I never saw it coming until it was full in my face," Crider says. "I was brokenhearted."
The difficulty the Criders faced resonates with military families across the country as children deal with repeated deployments and the stress borne by parents who are left behind.
"The deployment of military parents is taking a toll on the mental health of children," says epidemiologist Alyssa Mansfield, who analyzed the medical records of more than 307,000 Army children in the most comprehensive study to date. "The longer the deployments, the more problems children experience."
No one knows what the long-term consequences will be. "I'm just afraid we don't know how much is too much," Crider says, "until it is too much."
Stress Points | The medical community is noticing the strain. Active-duty Army children whose parents deploy are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges than children whose parents don't deploy, according to Mansfield's analysis of their medical care from 2003 through 2006.
Overall, there were more than 6,500 additional mental health cases among children of deployed parents during the four years of the study. The results are conservative, given that Mansfield's study was limited to children 5 to 17 whose parents had been in the military for at least five years, and only included children who had received diagnoses for mental health problems. "I wouldn't be surprised if this number was three or four times higher," says Mansfield, who conducted the research at the University of North Carolina before taking her current job with VA's National Center for PTSD.
Boys appear to handle the strain of repeated deployments worse than girls. Older children have a tougher time than younger children. "Older children probably have a better understanding of exactly what's happening when their parent deploys," Mansfield says.
Crider saw her son's reactions change over time. When he was 5 and his father was serving his second deployment in Iraq, Jack matter-of-factly asked her, "What happens if Dad gets killed?" Although she nearly ran off the road when her son lobbed that question from the back seat of their car, Crider was able to reassure Jack, and he never broached the subject again. But when his father was back in Iraq three years later, her son's resilience evaporated.
"At 8, it's different," Crider says. "He starts to feel the responsibility of being a young man. I think his security was threatened when I had a bad day or felt sad. And I never realized how much he would miss his dad."
By the time her husband came home on R&R, the situation was serious. "Nothing says ‘welcome home' like ‘Get in the car, we're going to see the school counselor,'" Crider says.
The strains Jack Crider and other military children experience go far beyond what most civilian children face.
"People should be very cautious in trying to compare military children to civilian children, because deployment is unique to military children," says Mansfield, whose study of military children appeared in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. "Trauma and stress are not unique to military children. But deployment is a very different kind of stressor. It's chronic, and it's repeated, and it involves long periods of time. It also potentially involves the stress of their caretaker."
Crider can relate. She worries that Jack absorbed her stress from previous deployments. Her father died, and her nephew and a close friend were killed in accidents, during her husband's first combat tour in Iraq in 2003. Her 80-year-old mother was also hospitalized. During the next deployment, Crider served as Family Readiness Group leader for her husband's battalion, part of a brigade that had more than 100 soldiers killed during its 15 months in Iraq. She also fell down a flight of stairs and broke her ankle. Then on the eve of her son's birthday party a month later, Crider was hospitalized with a brown-recluse spider bite.
"I think there also was a delayed response to all of the stress of the (previous) deployments," Crider says of her son reaching his limit. "I sat there and I wondered, ‘How much of this is my fault because I'm not handling this deployment well? How much of this is because I'm tired at the end of the day?'"
Separation Anxiety | Some children experience problems as soon as their military parents begin deploying. Maj. Vinston Porter's daughter broke down the first time he went to Iraq.
"She was aware of the dangers of Iraq, and she knew that it meant Daddy was going away for a long time," Porter says about Rylei, who was 4 at the time.
Porter's wife, Stacey, found a private counselor to help Rylei. That counseling continued after Porter returned to Fort Stewart, Ga., and throughout his second deployment. He participated in the sessions with his wife and his daughter when he was home. "It was helpful to get tools and to address the situation for my wife and I and our daughter," he says.
Porter's son Blake, then 2, didn't have the same outward emotional reaction to his father's absence. But it took nearly all of the two weeks of Porter's R&R that first deployment for his son to warm up to him.
The second deployment, Porter was able to have weekly contact with his family via Skype. That virtual contact helped. His daughter's face lit up at being able to see her father, and his son wasn't standoffish when Porter came home on R&R. "Skype helped me keep up with the kids' progress better than simply reading and viewing pictures in emails," Porter adds.
Other military families give Skype and similar tech tools mixed reviews. In some cases, it keeps the family bonds alive. In others, it's a painful reminder a mom or dad is gone. And when there's a communications blackout, mandatory when there's a combat casualty, anxiety increases as families wait to find out whose loved one is injured or dead.
Meanwhile, the aftereffects of the deployments linger. Rylei Porter experiences separation anxiety, especially when family and friends visit.
"She always asks them when they are leaving and why they have to leave," Porter says. "These emotional events have left their mark on both kids," he adds. "In my opinion, reintegration will take at least a year."
Porter's family has moved to California, where he is spending a year at Google as part of the Army's Training with Industry program. That's created some new challenges for his daughter, including getting used to her father being around again and entering a new school for the first time.
"Unlike Georgia, the new school and surrounding community are less populated with military families, especially those who've endured deployments," Porter says. "There have been incidents that spark thoughts about being back in Georgia, where she didn't have these problems."
Suddenly Military | National Guard and reserve children, meanwhile, face particularly difficult challenges.
"As a Guard child, I think you may feel isolated," says Kerri Beckert, who supports Guard and reserve families as a program manager for the Military Children Education Coalition (MCEC). "They may feel like they are the only ones going through this."
The transition is also more abrupt. "Until Mom or Dad or big brother deploys, these children often don't think of themselves as part of the military community," Beckert says. "With deployment, they are suddenly military."
Trusting military children with information about their parents' deployment can help ease their stress. So does giving them a sense of control. "When we let them make decisions about what papers to send him or what questions to ask him on the phone, I think that helps children understand they have the ability to get through it," Beckert says.
MCEC encourages Guard and reserve families to notify a child's support network when a mother or father is about to be deployed. "It's important to let the school know, so there's communication between the counselor, the teacher and the principal," Beckert says.
The coalition helps military families become effective advocates for their children's education, in part by helping smooth the frequent moves that are standard fare for military families. It backed the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, an agreement that prevents military children from being excluded from schools, advanced-placement classes and sports tryouts because of the timing of a move, "so you don't have that kid who can't graduate on time because he only has half the gym credits he needs," Beckert says.
The coalition teaches classes on resiliency and helps parents prepare long-term academic plans for their children. "We're just giving them a toolkit – here's what works for other parents, here's what may work for you," says Beckert, who, as a mother of two and an Army wife of 23 years, knows the challenges firsthand.
The coalition also encourages parents to market their kids as military children when they are applying to college, because they bring a global perspective, are goal-oriented and are quick to make friends. "Most military children can say ‘please' and ‘thank you' in three languages," Beckert says. "Civilian personnel need to understand that there is more that is wonderful and courageous and strong about military children than is broken."
They also need to realize that military families are also committed.
"Nobody wants to go to war," Crider says. "You also don't train for 20 years not to. What got me through was my faith and my choices every day."
She also knows that, as a commanding officer's wife with another deployment on the horizon, her family stands as an example for others facing the same struggles with their children.
"It's really at the point that we just try our best – that's all anyone can really do," Crider says. "If we don't make a way – if we don't show how – I think we do a huge disservice to the families just starting their lives in the military."
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.