Addressing a child’s special needs can be difficult overseas
February 8, 2009
Tech. Sgt. Ross Funches and his wife, Wendy, loved raising their family overseas from the day they arrived in England in 2005.
The couple enjoyed traveling with their children and considered the assignment at RAF Mildenhall a benefit to their family’s growth. They had planned to extend their tour until shortly after their daughter, Eden, was born in April.
But at only 3 weeks old, Eden was diagnosed with coloboma, a rare eye disorder. Their youngest child was blind.
"We were crushed at first," said Ross Funches, 35, a special operations noncommissioned officer with a tattooed wedding band on his ring finger. "But now we’re excited. God made Eden the way she is. … We kind of felt guilty about being upset."
Still coping with the shock of Eden’s disability, the couple, who have three other children, soon discovered there were limited services for the blind at Mildenhall and nearby RAF Lakenheath, home to the largest Air Force hospital in Europe.
Living overseas had once enriched their children’s lives, but now it suddenly had the potential to hold one of them back. Access to certain specialized therapists and even prescription medications is often limited at overseas military installations. So, at the urging of doctors and social workers, they moved back to the States in June after petitioning for a medical-related reassignment through the Exceptional Family Members Program.
Now stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., Ross Funches was able to remain in special operations and get specialized care for Eden. How well she will deal with her disability later in life hinges on the care she receives now and into childhood, experts told the couple.
Eden now works with a developmental therapist specializing in blind infants — something not available on U.K. bases. She also receives services from the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
"They come to the house and work with her and even started pre-Braille with her. England didn’t have anything like that," Wendy Funches, 28, recently told Stars and Stripes from the family home in New Mexico.
"I’m glad that they recommended us leaving. We’re getting really good care for her here."
A difficult balance
Ross Funches was fortunate to be able to strike a balance between the needs of his family and his career, but others often have to make tougher choices in such situations. There are some 100,000 military and civilian families whose members require special medical or educational services, according to Defense Department records.
Services for families with special needs vary widely from base to base, especially overseas.
If a family cannot find services they need at an overseas base, they can get a referral to see foreign doctors and specialists or receive care at another installation in the region, said David McDonald, the family member relocation clearance coordinator at Lakenheath.
Those options differ slightly for active-duty personnel vs. civilian employees, said McDonald, who matches families with special needs to receiving bases that can accommodate them.
Military members are required to adhere to the EFMP process and are steered clear of assignments where their needs will not easily be met on base. To get care off-base or at another military installation in the region, they need special permission from commanders, McDonald said.
Civilians, on the other hand, are not bound by the limits at a particular base. They can see off-base physicians and use other military hospitals at will, McDonald said. In England, civilian employees are also eligible for the National Health Service.
But extensive commutes to off-base care, language barriers, foreign medical standards and unfamiliar insurance processes can make those alternatives difficult.
While the EFMP process is supposed to filter out most troops and discourage civilians from postings where they will not get the services they need, some still slip through the cracks, said Shirley Rogers, 374th Mission Support Group school liaison at Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo.
"Some parents do not disclose how severe their child’s special needs are," Rogers said. "They hide it, think[ing] it’s going to impact their career."
Civilian employees are the ones affected the most at Yokota, Roger said.
Richard King is a retired Air Force master sergeant who is now a civilian employee at Yokota. He has navigated the system from both sides.
King’s 11-year-old daughter, Rebecca, has cerebral palsy and is mentally retarded. King disclosed Rebecca’s disability after being hired at Yokota three years ago, but said he wasn’t fully informed of the lack of services at the base until he arrived in Japan.
He spent a year advocating for more programs for the disabled, but to no avail. That’s when he decided to be "less vocal" and "more thankful" for the job he had.
"I have a family to support. I had to go where the job is," said King, a widower with two other children. "I don’t have a lot of choices. I make it work like most people in Japan with special needs kids."
Just like any civilian medical facility, military hospitals cannot provide care for every need. However, it’s a slightly different story at base schools.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires publicly funded schools to hire experts to provide educational services for the disabled, even if it’s for only one student.
Department of Defense Schools in Europe and the Pacific provide everything from physical therapists to child psychologists for special needs children and young adults living in overseas military communities.
That has been King’s saving grace while in Japan, he said.
His mother now lives with the family and helps care for Rebecca. Services provided by the school at Yokota meet her basic developmental and educational needs. Supplemental therapies would be ideal, but Yokota’s medical clinic doesn’t offer them. And getting them off-base would be expensive and require King to hire a translator.
"I don’t shortchange my daughter. I’m just doing the best that I can in the circumstances," he said.
King tried advocating with Yokota officials for more services when he first arrived in Japan but soon realized that would not happen.
"When you know a store only sells Pepsi, you can’t complain that they don’t have Coke," he said. "It’s a warfighting mission here."
King said he was not ignored but simply told that Yokota had limited services.
His situation is common among families with special needs dependents at Yokota, said Rogers, the school liaison.
There is a misconception that if you don’t take an assignment overseas it reflects poorly on your career in or with the military, she said.
"People feel kind of stuck between a rock and hard place," Rogers said.
While the military is unlikely to increase special needs services at Yokota while fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, personnel officials could make the base’s limitations clearer, especially to civilian employees, Rogers said.
"But it’s a two-way street," Rogers said.
If someone brings a child with special needs to Yokota, knowing there are limited services for their particular disability, then they should incur some of the cost if they leave early, she said.
The military uses the term "special needs" to describe a broad spectrum of disabilities, ranging from mild cases of attention deficit disorder to more serious conditions such as Down syndrome. The challenges of raising a disabled child affect every family differently, depending not only on where they are stationed but also on their perspective.
For the Funches, the hasty move back to the States to get better care for Eden was a blessing.
"We tell people we had to leave England and they think it’s horrible. But I say, ‘No, they moved us to help us,’" Wendy Funches said. "When you think about it, what other job would do that?"