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What Kind Of Stuggles Do Military Kids Deal With?

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Aired 9/24/09

What kind of struggles do military kids face nowadays? We'll learn about the psychological and academic impact of having an active-duty parent in the military. We'll also discuss the concerns military parents have about the well-being of their children.

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.

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

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

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. It's common wisdom that kids are resilient. Children can often spring back from a bad experience or a difficult problem with surprising ease. So, the upset and worry kids go through with a parent in the military is sometimes not taken too seriously. We imagine that something will come along to distract them, or that they'll be able to bounce back without much trouble. That is not always the case. As the KPBS series “War Comes Home” continues, we look at the different ways kids handle being part of military life, and the way San Diego schools are starting to wrestle with the problems affecting military families. I’d like to welcome my guest, KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis. Good morning, Ana.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now you had a feature report as part of our series on Morning Edition today. Tell us more about the local military family that you talked with.

TINTOCALIS: Well, Maureen, there are literally thousands and thousands of military families in San Diego County but I did decide to zero in on this particular family because they’re your kind of typical, all American military family. Mom, who’s Liz Barnes – and it’s the Barnes family. So mom, Liz Barnes, is a very dedicated military wife, very involved mother. Dad has been serving in the military for a couple of decades and he was deployed to Iraq. And then you have the two teenage boys, Matt, who’s sixteen, who right now is a junior in high school, and then Mitch, who’s eighteen, who just started community college as a freshman. And so together this family has bounced around different – to different states from the east coast to the west coast, back to the east coast, back to the west coast, so they very much resemble this kind of military family, well all military families, really, that have this kind of nomadic lifestyle.

CAVANAUGH: And so the dad, Tony Barnes, is currently a flight trainer at MCAS Miramar, and there’s another reassignment coming up next year, so what kind of challenges is that creating for the family?

TINTOCALIS: And that’s one of the reasons why I also picked this family. Dad received orders that he’s going to have to move again and so the family was put into the situation again of having to move, and it’s tricky this time because, as I mentioned, Matt is a junior in high school so he would have to go to another school and spend his senior year in a totally different school, which is very difficult to do. And then you have Mitch who just enrolled in community college. He’s just a freshman and he just completed that kind of – that whole admissions process. So Liz, the mother, said, you know, they’re – they were talking about not following dad, staying put and just finishing out maybe the first or second years just, you know, with dad away and them here in San Diego County. And it’s not something new. I think military families who have older kids are thinking of not following the active duty member and this is what she had to say about that problem.

LIZ BARNES (Military Wife): When the active duty member gets orders the family is choosing not to move. The active duty becomes a geo-bachelor, meaning he moves and leaves the family behind to have school continuity. We, as a new family, tossed that up and felt there were so many opportunities when we don’t have a choice, we’re apart, why would we willing choose to be apart?

TINTOCALIS: So now they have come to this conclusion that, yes, we’ll all move, we’ll all pack up. And, physically, they won’t pack up for another, you know, half a year or something but mentally I think they’re packing up, meaning they’re thinking of saying goodbye to their friends, the people that they’ve met, the bonds that they’ve met (sic) within the community, the school community. So I think those are the things that are running through their minds right now.

CAVANAUGH: So how are these two young men, these two teenagers, reacting to this move?

TINTOCALIS: It’s an interesting case study because the two brothers are – have very different personalities. The younger one is more outgoing, can make friends really fast, is more resilient and so he’s kind of seeing it as, okay, yeah, we have to move again. I don’t like this but it’s a challenge that I’m going to try to tackle, and I’m going to try to do it the best I can. And then you have the older son, Mitch, who’s much more introverted, much more shy, does not like change. He finds it very difficult to make friends. So he’s responding to the change differently. He sees it more as a difficult challenge he would rather not tackle. And I see these two boys as kind of representing two camps of military kids within the system. You have those kids that can kind of go through it and do their best, and then you have the other camp that would rather just run away from it all or just not have to deal with it all. And when I talked to military counselors, those kids who want to avoid the whole thing, that can turn actually into a more serious problem. If they don’t develop those coping skills, it leads into depression, anxiety, avoidance, and a lot of other kind of emotional social adjustments that they might not come to terms with.

CAVANAUGH: Right. How often do military families move typically? And I wonder what kind of impact does that have on these children?

TINTOCALIS: Well, the research shows that military families usually move every three years and so – to different states and different cities, different communities, about every three years. And so for the Barnes family, they’ve actually been in San Diego for about four years. And Liz was saying, you know, it’s hard for people to understand but when you’re a military family, you almost get the itch of moving every three to four years so if you’re staying longer than four years in one place, you know, you kind of feel awkward. And so they knew this move was probably coming up but they’ve stayed here longer than any other place and – and so it’s interesting. And so for the boys and for just the students generally speaking, they can attend up to nine different schools during their move. That’s a lot of different schools, different teachers, making new friends. And I talked to one Lieutenant Colonel at Camp Pendleton whose boy went to twelve schools in his lifetime. So if you can imagine going through the schools, different school systems, too, that many times, it has a big impact on how you’re also just going to do in school.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that could be very tough. Now we’re just talking about active military who are deployed stateside but what happens when the active military member in the family is actually deployed over to Iraq or Afghanistan? What did the kids you talked to say about that situation?

TINTOCALIS: Well, you’re right, like just generally speaking when there isn’t a deployment, you have a lot of social, emotional adjustments. I talked to some military counselors who said, you know, the young ones would lock themselves in bathroom stalls during school so they would have – they wouldn’t have to deal with the kids. They just want to avoid reality, and some would lash out on the playground and that is exacerbated when a dad or mom is deployed and now you have more psychological things going on inside the young minds and so you – I’ve heard stories of kids just tuning out of class. You know, there’s a lecture, a teacher will be giving a lecture and they just tune out. They can’t concentrate on their assignment. And in the case of Matt Barnes, the young boy that I profiled, he was saying, you know, for him it’s not so much school because school actually helps to distract him, it’s when – it’s the quiet moments when he’s just by himself. And this is what he had to say.

MATT BARNES (Military Dependent): Every day when like you turn on the new or you’re like flipping channels and like another eleven dead in Iraq, you know, you’re like, oh, you know, that could be my dad. Like when you’re around your friends, it doesn’t bother you. It more like when you’re like alone, when you like get home or something, you’re working on your homework, is when it’ll like hit you.

TINTOCALIS: And he said, you know, summer was the hardest part for him when his dad was deployed because he and his dad would go surfing a lot and, you know, there’d be a beautiful day and he would head to his dad’s room to say, hey, Dad, let’s go surfing. And it was an empty room. And that was tough for him.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in your feature, you talk about how the San Diego Unified School District recently appointed a military coordinator. What will this person do? And what is the city school district doing to assist military families?

TINTOCALIS: Well, it’s interesting, you know, San Diego is known as this military city, the county really is, but the San Diego Unified School District is just beginning to get hip with the fact that there’s so many military kids in their district that they should probably do something about it or at least provide more supports for them. And I think also, part of that is deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re just more frequent, they’re more intense, and there’s so many more military families here that I think the district is finally—and the military—are finally coming together, school districts and the military, finally coming together to say let’s help these students, let’s provide them more supports. And so the district now has formed a really tight partnership with the navy because there are many navy families in the school district and they’re getting money from the Department of Defense and they’re – they’ve identified eight schools that have the highest concentrations of military kids, and they’re trying to design programs that will help with these emotional, social, academic problems. And what they’re trying to do, actually, is build programs that kind of already exist or at least an infrastructure that already exists at schools on base. For example, at Camp Pendleton and Miramar, there’s already a really good safety net set up for those kids so that’s what the public schools, you know, that aren’t on base are trying to develop. And so this woman, Pam Hosmer, she’s the coordinator, she’s getting this all set up and she also heads up fostering youth family programs. And she says it’s interesting because there are parallels between military kids and fostering youth, foster youth and homeless youth because they’re always on the move. Things are unstable, and there’s a lot of emotional and social stress around these young people, and this is what she had to say.

PAM HOSMER (Public/Military Schools Coordinator): We know, based on other populations that they are suspended and expelled more frequently. They need psychological counseling more frequently. They need more academic supports because, not because they’re not capable of doing the work, it’s because you move and every time you move, you miss a little school.

TINTOCALIS: And the academic – the quality of academics is another big issue for military families and there’s a bill on the governor’s desk that would help, would, they say, level the playing field for these kids.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, have there been any studies done on how well military kids do when they have to move around from school to school? How does that affect their academic performance?

TINTOCALIS: Well, in doing this story, I realized there isn’t a lot of research on the academic performance or how these pressures impact the academic performance of military kids. And San Diego Unified is now – is tracking that, is trying to pinpoint exactly how this is affecting kids in the classroom and there is some, I guess, preliminary reports that it is affecting their academics, especially in the area of math, interestingly enough. So they’re trying to devise some academic interventions for, as I mentioned, the eight schools with the highest concentrations of military children.

CAVANAUGH: Now, finally, is there any place where these military kids can get together and talk among themselves and, you know, talk about the problems that they face with the only people who really understand, the kids who are going through it themselves.

TINTOCALIS: And that’s part of what the district is trying to do, at least, is they want to set up these transition centers at these eight campuses that would be like a one-stop-shop for these kids so they could go there for academic help and they could also go there for emotional help. And there’s a woman who’s a school liaison with the navy that’s working with the district, her name is Desiree Clarke. They’re starting these support groups for the young people at school for when mom and dad is (sic) deployed and she talked a little bit about how kids are receiving that program.

DESIREE CLARKE (School Liaison): One of the children said to me before, that I was working with, was no one gets it. My teachers don’t get it, no one gets it. But then when they started to go to the deployment support group, I said, see, people get it, don’t they? Yeah, they get it. And just knowing that she wasn’t alone made the world of difference for her.

TINTOCALIS: And so we’ll see how these support groups actually help more kids in the end but at least they’re starting to get at the problem.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a one – a fab – a very interesting report and I’m very surprised that San Diego schools are just getting around to this but it’s good to know that they are. Thank you so much, Ana.

TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis. It’s part of our KPBS series “War Comes Home” Now if you’d like to see any of the reports or the resources contained in our “War Comes Home” series, you can go to KPBS.org. Click on the “War Comes Home” page. And coming up on These Days, is medical marijuana in legal limbo in San Diego? These Days continues on KPBS in just a few moments.

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