As the mother of a young Marine who fought in Iraq, I learned how one deployment can deeply affect a whole family. For every soldier, there are often multiple loved ones back home who worry, bear extra burdens, endure loneliness, become caregivers and grieve if that soldier fails to return. These loved ones can include parents and siblings, husbands and wives and, perhaps most important for us to acknowledge, children.
Some 40% of today’s military members have children, and half of those children are under age 5. More than 2.7 million American children have a parent who has been to war. Let’s consider what we ask of those children and resolve to do more to support them and their families.
With colleagues, I made a documentary film, “Veteran Children: When Parents Go To War,” (veteranchildren.com) to illuminate the impact of war on America’s children and families. There is no question the impact of our wars is more horrific for children in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but in our film we say to Americans that there is a significant and largely invisible impact on our own children and families, as well.
There is a code of silence around war. Many soldiers are hesitant to talk about their wartime experiences, and many civilians are disconnected from and aren’t sure how to talk about war with those who serve.
Soldiers put up a protective wall, and behind that wall are the people who love them, some of whom need our help. We don’t hear much about military families, beyond seeing the occasional televised and joyful reunion of a returning soldier surprising his children in a school classroom or being welcomed back at an NFL football game.
Military children take pride in their military families and develop resilience and strength. They are often mature beyond their years, ready to take on new challenges. However, a child whose mother or father is at war may not have any one to talk to about what they are feeling.
What do they make of these far-off wars? Children get ideas about war from the media, often the news or a video game. A child who is told that her parent is fighting a war may fear that someone, the enemy, is trying to kill her father.
One boy we filmed said that he didn’t like the questions he got about his father. “Some people at my school asked if he’s ever killed anybody or hurt anybody, and that makes me mad. That’s kind of a personal question to ask,” he said. “My dad’s really not like a killer, so I wouldn’t think of him like that.”
Military children carry this weight and may not feel safe talking about these issues at home or at school. The grandmother of a child interviewed in our film said, “I never knew he felt this way.”
The National Military Family Association reports that they hear repeatedly from military kids that “they need people in their community to know what they’re going through.”
We teach our children about history and patriotism but not about the realities of war. This leaves them unprepared. When they are 18, they will be old enough to join the military and old enough to vote for the leaders who make choices about if and when we go to war.
Civilians with school-age children can seek out military families in their children’s school to make connections and to collaborate with teachers to create opportunities for learning and discussion.
Our troops are returning home from the longest wars in American history. Many had multiple deployments. We should remember that the wounds of war — physical and mental — do not always heal.
Let’s honor those who served and died in war, but let’s also think of the children and families of soldiers who need our support.