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Military Kids Struggling At Home With Parents Deployed Abroad

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Aired 9/24/09

San Diego County has one the largest concentrations of military families in the nation. The children of those families are affectionately nicknamed "military brats." But that nickname does little to explain the emotional and academic struggles these kids endure when a military parent is deployed or is reassigned. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis has the fourth part in our series, "War Comes Home."

Liz Barnes is a military school liaison at a mom of two teenage boys.
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Above: Liz Barnes is a military school liaison at a mom of two teenage boys.

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Above: KPBS Reporter Alison St John, who produced the series War Comes Home, talks about special challenges faced by military families in San Diego.

— San Diego County has one of the largest concentrations of military families in the nation. The children of those families are affectionately nicknamed "military brats," but that nickname does little to explain the emotional and academic struggles these kids endure when a military parent is deployed or reassigned. This is the fourth part in our series, "War Comes Home."

It's the end of a busy work day for Liz Barnes. She's a dedicated military wife and mom of two teenage boys. As she does every day, Barnes picks up the phone and calls her sons before she heads home. Sixteen-year-old Matt Barnes is the youngest and the more outgoing.

Matt: Hello.

Liz: Hey, its mom, what's up? Did you go to tutoring?

Matt: Yeah, Pre-Calculus.

Liz: Excellent.

Matt: Oh yeah, its just a blast.

Barnes’ husband is a flight commander at San Diego's Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. Barnes works on base as a military school liaison. She connects military families moving to San Diego with local public schools.

But lately Barnes is a bit more concerned about her own family. Her husband will be reassigned next year. The timing is tricky for Barnes’ two boys. Her oldest son Mitch just enrolled in a community college. Now he has to enroll again in another state. Younger son Matt will be a senior in high school. He says he's coming to terms with saying goodbye to school friends he's made over the last four years.

Brothers Matt (right) and Mitch (left) Barnes say growing up in a military family has its challenges.
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Above: Brothers Matt (right) and Mitch (left) Barnes say growing up in a military family has its challenges.

“Its hard but it's kind of like a new challenge,” Matt Barnes said. “There's parts of it that I don't like but, at the end of the day, it's going to happen. You have to take it the way it is.”

Research shows military families move on average about every three years. These kids usually attend up to nine different schools in their lifetime.

Some students handle the constant change better than others. Counselors say military children can go through intense periods of emotional and social adjustments after every move. It can get even worse when a parent is deployed to a war zone.

Some kids have been known to lock themselves in bathrooms at school or lash out on the playground. Some of them also struggle academically.

Barnes’ oldest son Mitch has found the process painful. Even though her younger son Matt is more resilient, he says the hardest part is knowing his dad might not come back home at all.

“Everyday you turn on the news or you’re flipping channels, [reports of] another 11 dead in Iraq. That could be my dad,” Matt Barnes said. “Around your friends it doesn't bother you. It's more like when you're alone. When you get home and you're working on your homework, then it hits you.”

Now, more military and school officials are paying close attention to the problem because there are more military families in the region -- and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are more frequent, dangerous and intense.

Pam Hosmer, the newly appointed military coordinator for the San Diego Unified School District, said about 10 percent of the district's students have ties to the military.

“We recognize the sacrifices the enlisted men and women make, but we have not really been looking at the sacrifices the children make. And they are sacrificing,” Hosmer said.

The district is using federal money to bring in more services to eight schools with the most students from military families. They're modeling programs set up at schools on base at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside. Marine Corps Deputy Sam Pelham said teachers on base are ready to respond to any crisis -- even when a parent dies in combat.

“[The base schools are] very sensitive to the issues of deployments and the affects of deployments on the kids,” Pelham said. “We have different organizations that can go in and teach the teachers. Get them prepared for what might be going through the mind of the student.”

There has been very little research on the affects these pressures have on academic performance. San Diego Unified is beginning to track that. They plan to create new transition centers on campuses to support both parents and students.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Barnes says even with all the support in the world, sometimes he just wants to deal with it on his own terms.

“I don't want someone to keep bringing it up. It's already in the back of my mind like everyday, especially when he's deployed. It's just not something I want to think about all the time.”

Barnes said he'd rather spend more time thinking about graduation which could be complicated by a move in his senior year. A bill on Governor Schwarzenegger's desk would help students like Matt by waiving certain academic requirements for military children who are constantly on the move.

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