Chapter Six: The Current War

Several recent articles in newspapers and magazines suggest that the children of today’s casualties will suffer much the same way as those who have gone before them. However, recent organizations have been formed that are trying to help mitigate the pain of military family bereavement. No one can eliminate the sorrow and lasting impact of such tragedy. Although most citizens are still blissfully unaware of the traumas affecting those around them, more services are available to today’s war orphans.
The U.S. Army recently commissioned a 2007 update of their 1993 study “What We Know About Army Families.” Although the bulk of the report concerns itself with family reactions to military life, including deployment, bereaved military children are briefly mentioned. The release of this study prompted New York Times reporter Lisa Foderaro to interview bereaved military families and write her article “Old Enough Now to Ask How Dad Died at War.” Young Mya Williams (age 8) is just now asking her mother questions about her father’s death in Iraq three years ago. The child had been told that “Daddy’s in heaven with the Care Bears,” but after attending a grief camp run by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), she learned about Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.) and roadside bombs. She began asking her mother for information, and upon hearing the true story of his death, “the rest of the day she was withdrawn and quiet and said she didn’t want to hear anything else.” Her mother, Brandy Williams, said, “When she asks me and I start talking about it, my voice gets cracky and tears roll down my face…I see Mya hurting more now because she’s understanding more. In school, when we have family events, that’s the toughest for her. She sees the mommy and the daddy, and it’s just me.” Without knowing how many single mothers attend these events in the Williams’ community, we cannot know whether Mya feels different because she has no father or whether some other cultural and psychological forces influence her reactions.
Today’s orphans express similar emotions to those already explored in this thesis. At a recent Good Grief Camp sponsored by TAPS, 17-year-old Letitia Imel expressed her gratitude at the opportunity to meet other kids like herself who had lost a loved one to the Iraq War. She said, "At school, everyone looks at you differently, and they don't really understand" (taps.org). Paul Syverson, 10, tried hard not to cry when remembering the day the notification soldier came to his door. Seeing the soldier, his mother had started crying and sent the boy next door to play, intending to protect him from the news. Scott Rentschler's grandmother said that moving off base was difficult for Scott. She claimed that, "society and schools make few allowances for children in their second year of grief…'People think he should be all fixed up'" (Alvarez). These stories sound very familiar. Can the orphans of the Iraq War look forward to more of the same military apathy and civilian misunderstandings?
I believe that although these children are already expressing similar experiences, there is one noticeable difference: they are being interviewed by reporters, they are attending a Good Grief Camp organized by a non-profit civilian group, and their stories have already been published in several newspapers, magazines and online sources. There is a heightened concern for their plight.
TAPS is a non-profit civilian support network of current and retired military servicemen and women, bereavement professionals and peer volunteers who work to help surviving families of those who died in service to the U.S. The organization conducts the National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors. They also monitor a crisis line, an online-chat group, and other grief and trauma assistance. This organization is growing and was recently invited to conduct the Seminar and Camp on Camp Pendleton Marine Base. Similar events are planned for 2007 at Fort Carson, Fort Hood, and Fort Lewis. This coordination between civilian and military organizations dedicated to helping the widow, orphans (and more recently the widowers) of current wars is a sincere attempt to improve civil-military coordination regarding the impact of war casualties. The military is beginning to see the need to take care of its own beyond the sponsor’s death.
The Department of Defense has conducted several studies and hearings about the living conditions and mental health of military families. The large number of Reserve soldiers fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with an increase in the number of soldiers with dependents, have inspired the military to enact several policies to help maintain the all-volunteer force at needed levels. An estimated 1.5 million school-age children had parents on active duty in 2004 (Lamberg 1541). The DOD’s June 2007 report “An Achievable Vision” states that mental health assistance for military members impacted by war is currently inadequate. The goal is to provide better education and coordination of services for servicemen, their family members, and their survivors (ES 3-4). In addition, Congress held a series of hearings in 2003-04 on current support for military families with children (Subcommittee on Children and Families). And in 2003, the Dept. of Veterans Affairs finally added bereavement counseling to their benefits package (VetCenter).
Some new policy changes are now in effect. After 2005, the military changed the rule allowing the widow and children to live on base for 6 months after death; they now have one year before they have to move (Military Widow, 144). However, according to the Department of Defense Survivor's Benefits booklet, the surviving spouse has only 72 hours to produce documents such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce settlements in the case of previous children of the service member, a morass of paperwork and applications for benefits, taxes, funeral arrangements, etc. More realistic policies about the need to produce all these documents so quickly could help the widow.
Several private organizations are developing assistance programs. The largest non-profit organization is TAPS. In addition, the non-profit Military Child Education Coalition has created a church-based initiative called "Living in the New Normal" for survivors near Ft. Hood. Their support program promotes "resilience and non-victimization" and encourages civilian support and education for the surviving children (militarychild.org). In addition, private charity organizations are organizing programs. Snowball Express is a charity that brings together such civic groups as the American Legion, the Rotary, and Vietnam Veterans of America to give children a weekend of entertainment to ease the sting of grief. In 2006, they brought nearly 1,000 widows and orphans to Orange County, California for a day at Disneyland and other events. A similar event is being planned for December 2007 (snowballexpress.org). In addition, Oliver North's Freedom Alliance provides college scholarships to children of military heroes (freedom alliance.org).
However, these small improvements are in the very early stages of development and their effectiveness remains to be seen. In the absence of longitudinal or cross-sectional studies by social scientists or mental health professionals, much misunderstanding about military children’s specific grief still exists. Published in 2006, the book Military Widow: A Survival Guide was the first text devoted to the needs and concerns of surviving military families. Co-written by a military widow certified in trauma counseling and a military trauma nurse specializing in traumatic grief and crisis response, this text takes a realistic approach to military death. Yet a close look at this text gives evidence for the confusion about how to handle grieving children. In the chapter titled "Dealing With Kids", the authors discuss behaviors in children considered cause for concern, such as acting out or showing aggressive behaviors like temper tantrums or hitting, regression to bed-wetting or thumb sucking, withdrawal from family and friends, problems at school, alcohol or drugs, and fantasies about dying or reuniting with Dad (Military Widow 113). However, after listing the above behaviors as warning signs, later in the same chapter the widow is told that normal reactions include “children may want to spend more time alone and will isolate themselves” and may be more physical acting out their grief, which could “escalate to out-of-control behaviors" (111). They may not understand that death is permanent, or may secretly worry that Mommy might die too. They may “try to protect you from their feelings. They may not mention their father or cry in front of you if they know it upsets you” (112). The authors suggest that these normal reactions could be signs of mental problems. There is no mention, however, of how much time should pass before these “normal” behaviors should become concerns requiring the advice of a counselor. The gentle tone of the advice, combined with the monumental and permanent trauma being described, belies the fact that few really know what exactly to do to help the children. What is needed is scientific research in addition to loving care and concern.
In response to a 2001 congressional initiative, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is currently sponsoring some mental health studies. In 2006 the New York University Child Study Center published a guide for parents and professionals who care for kids affected by trauma, disaster and death. Although the focus for this study was children who were affected by unusual and sudden trauma such as acts of terrorism (such as the destruction of the Twin Towers in NYC) or natural disasters, the study’s results could apply to children affected by war. According to Dr. Robin Goodman, children exposed to trauma are susceptible to post-traumatic stress symptoms like sadness, anger, sleeplessness, distractibility, etc. (Lamberg 1541). Some of these children may develop childhood traumatic grief, which could last indefinitely as they mature. In addition, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) is currently studying the effects of childhood traumatic grief, which medical professionals define as “a condition that children may develop after a loved one dies under circumstances that they perceive as traumatic” (nctsnet.org). According to Dr. Alicia Lieberman, “Children who lose loved ones under unexpected circumstances can develop post-traumatic stress symptoms.” Depression is another consequence, and “secondary adversities” such as changes in place of residence or school and disruptions to family financial stability can impact the dynamics of the caregiving situation of the child. A military orphan experiences all of the above adversities.
The message of the study is that expressing grief is essential to healing. Children must learn to handle memory triggers such as reminders of the loss or of the lifestyle changes. If children cannot create a trauma narrative (words, drawings, or other methods of expression) or directly confront their traumatic memories, they may deal with triggers by avoiding the subject or becoming emotionally numb.
The study also explores the importance of family members’ reactions and the difficulties of a situation where the caregivers are themselves distraught by grief. According to the Army’s aforementioned 2007 Update, several studies on childhood separation and bereavement indicate that “the mother’s reaction was the most important factor in how well children adjusted to the death or indefinite absence of their Soldier parent” (89). Goodman claims that adults often assume that children will get over traumatic situations or that it wasn’t that bad for the child. These findings could explain the debilitating effects of the widow’s impulse to destroy any reminders of the orphan’s father and to remain silent about him to her children. When the widow, extended family and community avoid any reminders of the death, an unhealthy silence descends upon the children. Clearly, the widow needs sustained and appropriate assistance with handling her grief and the grief of her child.
Children sometimes do not manifest their grief in the same way as adults. The goal is for the child to learn to assimilate the trauma into their lives, so they can move on and not be stuck in the trauma (nctsnet.org). Arguably, losing a parent to a distant war is not the same traumatic event as directly witnessing a death (as the children in the NCTSN study have). And, because none of these studies focused specifically on war orphans, my impressions are only assumptions. However, the anecdotal evidence expressed in the memoirs and oral narratives discussed in this thesis indicates that war orphans experience similar emotional and behavioral responses to those experienced by traumatized children. These stories reveal the true costs of war and teach us important lessons that might help a new generation of war orphans whose fathers and mothers are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
In a sense, this paper represents my own trauma narrative. As Dr. Darcie Sims told me at a recent TAPS Good Grief Camp held on Camp Pendelton Marine Base, by sharing my story I am someone else’s path to healing. My involvement with TAPS and my strong interest in helping the kids who are living in grief now is testimony to the healing power of confronting the loss directly and using that knowledge to help others. No one should have to feel ashamed of their parents’ willingness to risk their lives to defend their national interests. All politics aside, we should help the children of those brave souls.
On August 3, Commanding General Lehnert of Camp Pendleton Marine Base welcomed TAPS participants and volunteers to the first on-base Good Grief Camp. He spoke words of solace and pride, expressing the adage that “cultures and nations should be remembered by how they honor their dead and care for the elderly.” This exceptional gentleman and soldier welcomed the widows and children who had lost their loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them under his command. Peer-group bereavement meetings at the officer’s club were followed by dinner on the lawn of General Lehnert’s home. If this is any indication of an improved military and civilian attitude toward those bereaved by today’s war, then there is hope for our nation to be remembered as one that matured into a true understanding of responsibility and respect for those who have sacrificed on our behalf. One could imagine Foucault pointing out that a kind-hearted paternalistic state still limits true freedom, but I'd prefer to serve a nation that acknowledges and respects my sacrifice.

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