The Mil Life: Raising a family in a post 9-11 world

Sep 07, 2011

What do you teach your kids about a day as dark as 9-11? How has it affected your parenting, especially in a military family?

In this week's Mil Life chat, Stephanie Himel-Nelson discussed how the events on Sept. 11, 2001 has changed the lives of military families. Write in about how 9-11 has changed your military family, from what you teach your kids about war to coping with longer deployments and more.

Also weigh in on how you think 9-11 has affected military families from civilian families, if at all.

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 to the Mil Life! Today we're talking about what it's like to raise a family in a post-9/11 world. 

Two days after the towers fell, my husband was recalled to active duty from the reserves. That's how it began for us, but we had it relatively easy. For many military families, much has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Many of our children haven't known anything but war during their lives. Having Mommy or Daddy gone for half the time (or more) is their new normal.

How has life changed for you and your family? How do you explain war and 9/11 to your children? Do you think that military families have experienced more change in the last 10 years than our civilian counterparts? We want to hear your thoughts.

I grew up in the military, dad was an Army officer. I was in 3rd grade when he was in Vietnam. My son is an Army officer and it does my heart good to see the support systems in place for his wife and daughters during his previous deployments to Iraq and one coming up in October. What a sea change for military families! The other biggie is the use of technology to stay in touch while Dad (or Mom) is away. We had nothing of the sort in 1967 other than the occasional SAM phone call where we had to say "over" at the end of every sentence. We have had as many as four members of our family deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan during the past 9 years. I guess the thing that really gets me is the disparity in awareness between military and civilian families. Sometimes I want to stand in a shopping mall and scream, "Hey! There's a war going on!" Thank you for everything you do to help military families. It does not go unnoticed.

I was an Air Force brat at the tail end of Vietnam so I know what you're saying. Things sure have changed! When my dad was gone, he was gone. Now, most of us can reach out via email or even phone from time to time.

The awareness factor is something that bothers me as well. I have plenty of civilian friends and family who really do understand what 10 years of war means to military families. But then there are people who have just never been forced to think about it.  I'm hopeful that all of the publicity military families, veterans, and service members have gotten will help raise awareness. It's not that we want them all to put on uniforms (although that might be nice!)  We just don't want to feel like we're going through this alone while the rest of the world carries on.

Thank you for your kind words!

Regarding how people reacted when they learned that Muslim extremists were behind the 9/11 attacks, how do military officers teach their kids the difference between the extremists and the moderate practioners of their faith?

That's a really good question.  And it's something my husband and I are still struggling with ourselves.  My children are 5 and 6 years old and we're just now trying to explain what happened on 9/11.  Surprisingly though, I think this question is more complicated for adults than it is for children.  My kids seem to readily accept that there are bad people in the world who will do bad things, but that the vast majority of people are good. Right now, that's all they seem to need.

When I bring in God, Allah, or religion, that's when things get complicated. My children simply can't comprehend a god or religion that would want people to be killed.  For now we stick with "bad" rather than "extremist." I'm sure this changes as children get older, so I'm really interested to hear what others have to say on this topic.

Jennifer Marsh posted on the Blue Star Families Facebook page about this topic:

The book "Fireboat" was outstanding for helping explain to our kids about 9/11. It's a true story of a fireboat that helped out on that day, it's very factual, but at the same time it was appropriate for young children. The only downside is that I cry every time I read it, but that led to a discussion one day about how it's okay to show emotions. So maybe not a downside after all!

Thank you, Jennifer! I'll be sure to pick up the book right away. And I know I won't be able to read it without crying. Heck, I can't even think about 9/11 without crying. But you're right - this could be a very good way to show our kids that emotions are ok.

Jennifer Eades also posted on our Facebook page:

I actually just picked up "Fireboat" today. "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers" is also an amazing story.

Thank you, Jennifer. I'll look for that book as well. I'm sure lots of our readers will enjoy both of them.  Well, maybe "enjoy" isn't quite the word I want, but you know what I mean.

One thing we really struggle with is what to tell our 4 year old about war. He's in the Age of Why and wants to know WHY daddy has to go. So far, "fighting bad guys" works, but what do I say when he's older?

I struggle with this too. I think we all do.

My brother deployed when the kids were 2 and 3 and that was the first time we had to deal with it. Like your experience "bad guys" seemed to work just fine. But now at 5 and 6 they have more specific questions. They want to know WHY we're fighting in Afghanistan, but I have to be careful not to tell them more than they can handle and process at such a young age.  Like I mentioned in the earlier question about religious extremism, if I tried to go into that sort of explanation, I think my kids would be more confused than anything.  But I know this may change withing a few years. So just be careful not to give too much to your kids before they can handle it.  You know your kids, so trust your mom instincts too.

I would love to hear from some parents of older children about their discussions of 9/11, war, and religious extremism.

Do you all think that military families have been more impacted by 9/11 and its fallout than civlian families? Why or why not?  Would love to hear from some civilians here as well!

Civilian and military = apples and oranges. I think life after 9/11 changed for everyone - threat levels, airport security, anthrax scares - but for military families it's been more constant. We've got this ridiculous optempo, sometimes little support (depending on where you are), our friends are coming back injured or not at all, suicide rates are sky high. And now we're all dealing with the current economic crisis.

That's a good point - our experiences have been totally different in many ways.  And often I feel as if once everyone adjusted to the new airport security routines and increased security, they just sort of forgot about why they exist. But we're sort of forced to remember on a daily basis.

I'm also glad you mentioned that suicide rates are on the increase. This is Suicide Prevention Week and we should all be aware of the warning signs. has some great resources as does the Veteran's Crisis Line.

I was in college in rural Missouri on 9/11, and I assume that I was less affected (both at the time and since) than those in the military or on the East Coast. I was firmly ensconced in the "college bubble" then, with awareness of the news but no personal connection, and I have had very, very few personal connections to those in the military. I consider my move to the DC area to be one of the best things I ever did for myself in terms of becoming more familiar with and appreciative of the men and women who serve and their families. I now have active duty friends and volunteer with the USO. 9/11, in all of its horror and heroism, has become much more real to me (as it should be).

I am so thrilled to hear that you're volunteering with the USO! I firmly believe that one of the best ways civilians can honor the service of military service members is by serving their communities in any way they can.

I'm also heartened to hear that 9/11 is more real for you now. I know for those of us living in DC and New York on the day or with friends, family, or co-workers who died, it was almost too real. But I honestly hadn't realized until recently that not everyone had the same intense, life-changing experience.

Kudos to you for broadening your experience!

That's all we have time for today.  Thank you, everyone, for joining us to discuss raising our families in a post-9/11 world. I know this is an emotional topic for many of us and explaining it to our children is difficult.

I hope that you will all find a few moments to remember the victims of 9/11 this Sunday. And then maybe spend a few moments thinking about how life has changed. For everyone.

We'll see you back here 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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