This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.
Andrew Leckel already was waking up with nightmares about his father’s second yearlong deployment in Iraq. One day he came home crying because his first-grade classmates had inadvertently fueled his fears by talking about soldiers being killed in the war.
His mother, Heidi Leckel, says her son’s experiences underscore the need for parents, teachers, neighbors — everyone — to be more aware of how hard the long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are hitting children of soldiers.
Andrew and his sister, Abby, 6, are two of 14,500 Wisconsin kids, from toddlers to teens, who didn’t sign up for battle, but still must surrender their parents for months at a time, and face the fear of losing them forever.
“The kids deserve a lot of praise and a lot of credit,” Heidi Leckel said. “If I decide I don’t like this life, I can divorce my husband. They can’t. They were born into it. Nobody ever asked the kids, ‘Is that something you want — to have your father in the military?’”
As the state National Guard has become a bigger player in the overseas wars, the impact on these children has played out time and time again in Wisconsin schools and homes.
Depression, anxiety, poor school performance and sometimes more serious symptoms have surfaced. Sometimes they are triggered by things people say about battle zone dangers, or about the reasons for the wars the United States is fighting.
The military has responded with mental health counseling, support groups, training for teachers and grants for sports and other activities.
“It’s a huge piece of what we’re doing because sometimes programs get focused solely on the adult family member, and we want to make sure we focus on the whole family,” said Lt. Col. Tammy Gross, Madison-based commander of the Wisconsin guard’s Service Member Support Division. “Our children are resilient, and they are very brave, but they are impacted by deployments.”
Last week, President Barack Obama announced 50 commitments federal agencies have made in response to his call for a unified response to emotional and economic needs of military families.
Effects of deployment
The impact on kids has become more clear as troops have been called upon for repeated and longer deployments and as more and more older soldiers with families have been pulled into the fight.
Some studies show higher levels of anxiety in military children and greater incidences of depression — especially for younger children and boys — when a parent is deployed. These kids deal with the same problems as peers whose parents aren’t in the military — drug use or self-harm, for example — but with the added uncertainty and danger of war.
Still, there isn’t nearly enough known about how the wars are affecting American children, advocates said.
Gross and others praise kids for coping and adapting, and say the deployment of a parent isn’t all bad.
“For military families, service is a way of life, and that trickles down to the kids,” said Tina Jeffords, who coordinates state Guard support for children.
But parents rightly are alarmed to see their children become more aggressive, revert to bed-wetting, do poorly in school or display other behaviors stemming from stress or bottled-up emotions, Jeffords said.
The Guard support division refers families to mental health providers and each year brings 550 children together at events across the state where they can see that they aren’t the only ones giving up a parent for a year at a time.
“Some of them just felt that they were alone and it was just good for them to know the other kids were there,” said Jason Schultz, a Greendale teen from a military family who helps plan holiday parties and other activities for children as a member of the state Guard’s Youth Advisory Board. “I can tell it makes a difference in their lives.”
When Maj. Eric Leckel returns to his Waterloo home this year from his second Iraq tour, he will have been overseas for about one-fourth of Andrew’s 8 years.
Heidi Leckel said she and his teacher talked him through the upsetting incident with his classmates. His nightmares and much of his anxiety dissipated after a few professional counseling sessions.
“It was a really safe place for him to go where he could talk about how sad he was and how angry he was without feeling like he was burdening me,” she said.
Andrew’s sister, Abby, misbehaved a little at school off and on, but she’s been adjusting more and more, with attention from the adults in her life, the mother said.
Other kids also have encountered problems at school.
Like Andrew, Caroline Blaha, 8, of Sparta, heard schoolmates talk about war and death and started feeling scared about her father when he was in Iraq for a year that ended last May.
“It was kind of hard, (but) sometimes my friends supported me,” she said. “They would just ignore things that other people would say and be nicer than they would usually be.”
And Amanda Parks, proud of her father’s mission with a state Guard unit that was training Iraqis to provide local government services, was crestfallen when her teachers were critical of the war and the prospects for fixing the country’s problems, said her mother, Elizabeth Parks.
“She was basically told to zip it, and that she didn’t know what’s really going on,” her mother said.
For Parks, it wasn’t just a parent who went away to war.
In 2008 and 2009, one of her brothers was guarding Iraqi detainees. He wasn’t allowed to tell anyone much about his duty, but she heard about rats in soldiers’ quarters and the toxic smoke from a large burn pit near the installation, so she spent much of his deployment worried about him, her mother said.
Working with schools
Children whose parents are deployed do best when they believe there’s a good reason for the war that has disrupted their lives, said Laura Pettersen, a UW Extension employee who is project director for the state chapter of the Defense Department’s Operation Military Kids, which provided camps and support for 2,861 youth in 2010.
In training sessions for educators, she suggests that teachers avoid judgmental statements about war.
While conducting lessons about current events, teachers should watch for strong reactions from the children of military families so someone can talk it through with them later, Pettersen said.
She also urges schools to add a question about military status to registration forms so that teachers can be aware of the possible impact of a deployment. Parents sometimes let teachers and principals know, but security and privacy concerns prevent the military from notifying schools, said John Hendricks, superintendent of the Sparta School District.
In Caroline Blaha’s case, her mother, Mary, notified teachers of the comments of Caroline’s classmates. After that, the problem seemed to clear up right away.
Kids also need to know that it’s all right to tell adults at school about their anxieties, said Hendricks.
“In a lot of cases, kids don’t want to appear to be different,” Hendricks said.
Sometimes the reverse is true, with older children in military families developing anti-war views that may be difficult to reconcile, Pettersen said.
Some schools have shown success in forming support groups for kids.
Laura Freeman, of Fort Atkinson, said Luther Elementary School formed a support group for a few kids, like her son, Tyler, whose parents were deployed to Iraq with the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team in 2009.
Four of Blaha’s daughters have attended Operation Military Kids camps.
Her middle daughter, 11-year-old Kirsten, said counselors encouraged campers to share their fears with one another.
“It sounded like they were kind of sad, and I was too,” Kirsten said. “It kind of helped. I told them that it was really hard and I really wanted him back.”
In Waterloo, Heidi Leckel said she continues to search for the best balance of free time, homework, sports and clubs to help Andrew and Abby through the deployment.
She encourages them to talk to her, but doesn’t let them use their father’s absence as an excuse to misbehave or skimp on schoolwork.
After school one night last week, Andrew was buoyant. He’d been the first in the family to wake up that morning when the computer beeped to signal that his father was available to talk for a few minutes via Skype.
Abby happily showed off a camel figurine her father had given her. One of Andrew’s favorite keepsakes from dad is a camouflage cap, which is starting to come apart at the bill from constant wear.
“It’s been hard,” Andrew said, slouched on a couch in his living room and cradling an iPod set up to display the current time in Iraq. “My dad is gone. I can’t go and do anything with him. ... When he left, I didn’t feel like myself and I really missed him. I felt it in my tummy.”
His advice to other kids is to be patient:
“Stay calm. He’ll be home soon.”