The Mil Life: Are military kids thriving or just surviving?

Aug 10, 2011

A whole generation of military children have grown up during a time of war. They've experienced deployed parents, changing schools, the loss of life in their immediate community and more. Stephanie Himel-Nelson chatted about this generation of war children and whether they are thriving or surviving.

In this chat, get your military child to submit his or her story on what it's like to growing up during a time of war. Parents can submit their stories on what it's like raising a child in today's military climate. Also, share stories of what it was like growing up as a military child compared to what you see today.

Ask questions, get advice, share your own experience and weigh in on this military topic!

This chat is part of The Mil Life, an going chat series the Post hosts for military families. The Mil Life chats take place every Wednesday at noon ET.

Check out these military resources for you and your family!

Blue Star Families
Military Officers Association of America
Gold Star Wives

Welcome! Today on The Mil Life we'll be talking about our children. There are special challenges that come with raising a child while balancing moves and deployments, but there are also special rewards to our lifestyle. Is your child thriving or surviving? Share your stories and let your kids share too.  Of course, if you have questions, we're happy to field those as well.

We are a National Guard Family that has been through one deployment with children and we are preparing for another. We do not have as many resources as readily available as our active duty counterparts. I am always looking for helpful advice for the National Guard side of military children going through deployments. It is especially hard because my children don't have the help of having children in the same situation around them daily or even once a week like the active side. We do as much as we can with other deployed families, but I would love some other good ideas that have worked for other families! God Bless. Thanks!

I do agree that deployments can be harder when you aren't surrounded by a military community. You're placed in the position of educating so many people about the military without having the same sort of community support.

There are a couple of organizations that have some great resources for NG. is a good one, as is the National Guard Family Program

I'd love to hear some suggestions from our readership as well, so, everyone, please weigh in!

I know that Military Families United offers a program for kids called Camp Desert Kids that gives children the ability to better understand the Afghan people and culture. I wanted to share information on the program with some of the spouses that read this online discussion since it has been such a help to my family. Camp Desert Kids gives our kids the opportunity to taste Afghan food, learn some of the language, speak with an Afghan expert, and even vote! It teaches our military kids about where their parents are and who they are their to help. The program visits installations around the country and can be requested! If you are interested, you should talk to your command or contact Military Families United at

This sounds like a great program.  Thank you so much for sharing it.  I think it would also be a great suggestion for our National Guard poster above.

RAND has been studying this question by following a group of military children who attend Operation Purple Camps. These free summer camps are sponsored in part by the National Military Family Association. NMFA makes application decisions based on many factors including the number of times a parent has been deployed, if the parent is currently deployed, and if there are siblings in the home. They attempt to get the children who most need a break to one of these camps. RAND has found that children in this study group are experiencing relatively high levels of emotional or behavioral difficutlies compared to their age group peers. These children are also experiencing higher than average levels of anxiety, particularly the girls in the study group. The issues that these children reported the most difficulty with included dealing with life without the deployed parent and helping the caregiver deal with life without the deployed parent. Reintegration and worrying about the next deployment were also two significant challenges for these children. Finally, RAND has established that the greater the cumulative months of deployment, the greater the emotional difficulties. RAND concluded, "The unique features of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq - including multiple, extended deployments - are creating psychological and emotional challenges for both service members and their families." Simply put, each deployment is tougher than the one before. The children know what's coming. They know it will be hard. They know they will miss their absent parent. Surviving is probably the best we can hope for. My husband is on his 5th extended deployment. As he prepared to board the aircraft, my four children returned to our car, each of them weeping silently during the drive home from the airfield. They got up the next morning, had breakfast and headed off to school. Our family, like many others, knows how to get through a deployment. We know we can get through a deployment. But life with their father in a war zone is not anywhere near as good as life with their father at home. It is hard to imagine how it could be.

Your story breaks my heart, but I know it's reality right now.

I can't say enough wonderful things about Operation Purple camps.  Here is the link for anyone who would like to read more about it on the NMFA website.

I have to add one positive note as well. In Blue Star Families 2010 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, we discovered that the children who cope the best are those who believe that their parent is doing a job that makes a difference. That certainly doesn't change the pain of the loss but perhaps it gives us a guide for our kids.

This is more of a statement. I think many military families are just surviving. The military spouse not only deploys for a year at a time, but when they are home, work extremely long hours, so they are not home for dinner, soccer, cubscouts etc.. This turns them into a single parent family without a divorce. My 5 year old when asked what it's like growing up with Daddy gone-"It's sad, we won't get to see him until he is old". My 7 year old said he wouldn't answer, he doesn't like to think about his Dad being gone. Besides being a military spouse, I am a health care provider in a military communtiy, and frequently see spouses who experience increased stress and related health problems while their spouses deploy. The "Go and Grow ' sounds nice, but it's different when you are actually living this life.

Thank you for sharing your perspective, which is definitely unique because you see milspouses when they are at their most vulnerable.

My military friends and I joke that we frequently sit around and talk about our antidepressant prescriptions, but many really are struggling.  I'm proud of my family, and I know many of you are too, but it is hard.  This new normal isn't always a fun one.

Do Army/Air Force/Navy and Marine "brats" ever ask why they have to move every 2 - 3 years? Maybe if they ask, they might get an answer to that question (or maybe not).

I know this Air Force brat asked the question quite loudly on many occassions, especially once I hit the teenage years.

I think they do ask the question, but it doesn't really make moving any easier, does it? 

Personally, while I know moving is not easy and it defeinitely depends on the circumstances of your family, I think moving can be a good thing.  You meet people around the world, experience different cultures, learn how to make friends and talk to new people, and become a well rounded person.

Now, deployments on the other hand....

As the baby boomer child of a WWII paratrooper who remained in the military after the war ended, I have noticed in my research for my upcoming book, The Hidden Legacy of World War II, that there are no studies on the children of those veterans and few on the children of Korean or Vietnam war veterans. What type of studies are being done on the military children of today's wars, and are there any plans to have retrospective studies of adult children to learn what happens to military children exposed to their fathers' war trauma throughout the life course of the child?

The DoD, Rand, and Blue Star Families are all constantly surveying military families now. And yes, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on our military children and finding out how growing up with the current optempo affects them.

I don't know of any retrospective surveys being done on adult children, but hopefully our readers will weigh in if they know of any.

I think the one thing unique about the current crop of kids is that they've faced multiple deployments in their young lives. And are still facing more.

I grew up in the U.S. Air Force the son of career NCO: I remember Korea, Cuban missile crisis, the cold war, Vietnam. Remember my father on long deployments being raised by my thankfully strong mother. Life as a military dependent is one without the benefit of a father, or a father that has time to focus on his dependent children because of duty in the armed forces. You ask are military kids from this nations latest engagements thriving or surviving? They like a long line of military "survive" in hope that their father's return to care for them. Some today, their mother's. If you choose to take a walk down the warriors path ask your self how wise it is to start a family? Like many military dependents some of us have followed our fathers in to the armed forces. Too many fail to ask themselves this question. President Obama greeted the remains of the SEALS & helicopter aircrew this week, how many children lost a father?

You make a very good point. But do we really need to expect our military to just not have families? Somehow I think our all-volunteer force couldn't handle that. Nor do I think it would be great for the stability, health, and readiness of our military forces.

I was a military brat, with a frequently absent father. Yes, I would love to have had more of his time, but I was so proud of what he did. I wouldn't change a thing about how I was raised.  And my own children - can I wish them away? Could my husband?  NO WAY!

Yes, this life can be hard, even more so right now, but I'm incredibly proud of my family's service and I know many military spouses feel the same way. I don't think just not having kids is the answer to the problem. is also a great resource. Our Military Kids provides substantial support in the form of grants to the children of National Guard and Military Reserve personnel who are currently deployed overseas, as well as the children of Wounded Warriors in all branches. The grants from Our Military Kids pay for participation in sports, fine arts, camps, and tutoring programs that nurture and sustain children while a parent is away in service to our country or recovering from injury.

Thank you!  Try this link to visit Our Military Kids.

I've been reading these chats with interest. I'm a Foreign Service brat and I think a lot of the experiences I read about here are very similar to my own--frequent moves, adapting to foreign countries, the need to build a strong network, etc. (The big difference is that I rarely had to worry about my dad being killed, although he had a couple of close calls.) My life in the Foreign Service has been of immense value to me as an adult, both personally and professionally. I would just tell parents who are worrying about what this life is doing to your child, that your kid is tougher and stronger than you think. The important thing is to be consistent with the things that matter (love and structure) and all the rest will fall into place.

Thanks for weighing in!  And you are right that the life can be very similar.  Personally, I think moving can be a good thing, as I mentioned earlier. 

The harder part of this lifestyle is the deployment cycle. I grew up as an Air Force brat and my father was frequently gone, but I didn't experience what today's military children - what my own children - experience. This is truly a unique generation, so we need to watch out for them.

We suspected our daughter was on the spectrum while stationed in Germany. The Doctors on base couldn't see it. They kept saying her speech would come and everything would be fine. My husband volunteered to deploy so I could move back home and seek treatment else where. With in 20 minutes of her 3 year old well baby visit the Doctor could tell something was wrong and suspected PDD-NOS. I wasted 18 months of her life stuck in Germany. My Child was just surviving for those 18 months. Tricare has really stepped up to the plate and the services she is getting are great. I no longer live near a base or receive base services .I get no help from my husbands unit or the Army besides insurance. What can we do to make sure other children are not pasted over like she was? What can we do if they are? And have no other resources like moving back home? I will have to go back to base life in August of next year and I am not sure what will happen with that move.

I think our special needs children are suffering the most from the military lifestyle.

I think the best thing you can do is to be your child's advocate. Sometimes you have to push beyond what's comfortable for your kids, whether you're in a civilian or a military family. It sounds like you did exactly that and continue to do so.  The children I worry most about are those with parents who don't necessarily push.

One great resource that I've seen is called STOMP - Specialized Training of Military Parents. They provide support and advice for parents of children with medical issues.

I'd love for our readers to weigh in with suggestions here too.

My 4 year old has speech and language delays due to early hearing problems. One area the military needs to work on is special needs children. We are stationed at a small base. She has been on a waiting list for a developmental pediatric doctor for months with no upcoming appointment in sight and another PCS looming. He is the only doctor of that speciality in the area that Tricare will cover and he is over an hour away. We ran into the same problem with speech therapy. I drive her over an hour each way for a 45 minute appt once a week because there is only one speech pathologist Tricare will cover in the area. My daughter needs to go twice a week but that would take away too much time from pre-K and she needs that time to remain consistent with her language and social skills. I struggled with the CDC at first to have her remain in their preschool program because they didn't want to take the time to understand her speech delay's direct effect on her behavior and respond to it correctly. It has been a struggle and with looming PCS knowing we will have to start the referral process to new doctors is overwhelming as it is.

I completely agree that this is one area that needs a lot of work.  Thank you for sharing your story.

Does homeschool, private school or public school make a difference?

I don't think so. I think you should do what's best for your child and your family!

Good afternoon! I am the wife of a severely injured veteran, my children have gone from a dual military family, to just having mom home while dad was gone all the time to Daddy getting hurt and being at the hospital all the time, and now he is retired and we are adjusting to civilian life, what advice can anyone give me on how to help my kids through this one because to be completely honest im struggling myself!

That is a big transition, for everyone!

Wounded Warrior Project has some good resources, as well as retreats for care givers. The Real Warriors site also has soom good resources for families as well.

I have three children with EFMP's. Two have Autism. We have PCS'd 7 times in 10 yrs. I often takes 6 months to even get to see specialists who deal with kids with Autism. Each child has an IEP for school as well My children arent thriving, and they arent surviving. You cant see a doctor 6 months out and then be put on orders and start from the begining each year over and over again. My 8 yr old has terrible terrible anxiety and is on anxiety meds even. I have letters from his school counselor, his para educator, on how devistating moving would be again on him. No one seems to care at all. Yet we have people who have been at posts for 10 yrs who have children with NO issues with the same MOS as my husbands. It just leaves us wondering WHY. No one seems to care or want to listen. There were two jobs last week that my husband could have taken that would have helped us, his Col was willing to give him a 4187, but Branch wouldnt work with us. Its frustrating because we just want what is best for our kids. I can not believe in the Army Covenent at all at this time

With all of these comments from the parents of special needs kids, I hope the military is listening!

This is more of a comment. I know the issue of deployed parents makes life awfully hard, but on a positive note families should take advantage of assignments in ways that will allow their kids to thrive. Overseas tours are such an assignment. We were stationed overseas twice (Japan and Germany) and we put our kids in local schools and local sports programs. Plus, we traveled as often as possible. In Europe this was easy with 4-day weekends. The fact that our kids were exposed to so many cultural differences has allowed them to thrive now that we are settled in the states - they are inquisitive about new things and understand that people can see the same situation in different ways, and that doesn't mean that they are wrong. The easy route when overseas is to utilize the base for shopping, youth sports, etc., but if people make the effort to get out into the host country or surrounding countries, their children will reap the benefits.

I completely agree!  This is the bonus to the military life and can really help you raise well rounded kids.

Being a military kid isn't all sadness and suffering. While I hated the fact that my dad was gone alot (and this was pre-9/11, so yes, different), and I'm absolutely jealous of my youngest siblings who have never known a time when Dad was gone for more than a few days here and there, I also know that I got to do things that I never would have gotten to do otherwise, I'm much more outgoing, I make friends easily, and I adapt to whatever surroundings I'm in with much more ease than many of my friends. We didn't know any other lifestyle, and neither did our parents, as both were also military children. But I'm pretty sure I (and each of my siblings) have turned out pretty well. Yes, times have changed since 9/11. But instead of focusing so much energy on the negative aspects, I wish more people would remember that kids are resilient, and they know only what their parents tell them. If they're constantly told that this life is horrible and they should be miserable, what do we expect?

I completely agree that the lifestyle can be positive in many, many ways. 

But I also don't think we should discount the many problems that parents are having with multiple deployments or special needs kids. There are very real problems, with long-term consequences for children that we're only now beginning to understand.

That being said, the kids who are most resilient seem to be those who believe their military parent is making a difference and are proud of their military service.  There's something to learn there!

Foreign Service brat here, again. Until I was an adult, I thought everyone moved every 2-3 years. It literally wasn't until I moved to Chicago after college graduation that I discovered that most people stayed in the same place. This was such a revelation to me. (And then I didn't move myself for another 16 years!)

Me too!  When I met my husband, who grew up in a small town in SW Nebraska, I was amazed that he'd gone to school with the same people for 13 years!

Just surviving - I have letters from my child's school about his anxiety and how moving again will set him back months in school.  They have even provided him a one on one para-educator to help him.  How can they talk family covenant and stabilization?  We have PCS'd 7 times in 10 yrs - branch won't even work with my husband even though two positions are open he could take and his command will willingly give him a 4187. We have 3.5 yrs left and 21yrs in service.  We just want a bit of help for once for our kids sake.

Again, I'm seeing a real problem here with special needs children.  Thank you for sharing your story.  I just wish I had an easy solution for you.

Keeping busy is important. Our Military Kids can help Guard and Reserve families with grants to help fund activities.

Another plug for Our Military Kids, which means that we should all go check it out!

That's all we have time for today. Thank you to everyone who shared stories and resources about raising your military children.

Here's a quick recap of the resources shared today:

Our Military Kids

Real Warriors

Wounded Warrior Project

Operation Purple camps from NMFA

Blue Star Families


We'll see you next week!

In This Chat
Stephanie Himel-Nelson
Stephanie Himel-Nelson is the communications director for Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit supporting military families. She left her career as an attorney to advocate for military families three years ago and hasn't looked back. Stephanie grew up in the military as an Air Force "brat" and she is still immersed in the military life. Stephanie's husband recently retired after 20 years in the Navy and her brother, a former Army soldier, is now serving in the Ohio National Guard. She lives with her husband and two boys, ages 5 and 6, in Chesapeake, Virginia.
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