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Pacific edition, Saturday, April 30, 2010

Casey Tencick, a fifth-grade teacher at Patriot Elementary School on Fort Carson, Colo., read here about a Rand Corp. study assessing how military children are stressed by their parents’ frequent wartime deployments.

Tencick thought her students would find the content of the column interesting and might like to react themselves to what the study, paid for by National Military Family Association, discovered about military children.

Did they ever.

I got a packet of letters from her kids a few weeks later. The students, in their own words, confirmed their rising anxieties. But the letters also showed what Tencick astutely identifies as their "amazing resilience."

Hayli Charlesworth, for one, wasn’t buying Rand’s conclusion that wartime deployments usually are harder on daughters than on sons.

"I know exactly what message you’re trying to send — that girls are not as strong mentally as boys — which I for one think is so untrue. Some girls are stronger than boys. I am out of paper but I am so not finished here. Don’t listen to Brianna!"

Brianna Brown, whose dad deployed last month, agreed with the finding that deployments are emotionally difficult for girls. She said she experiences the same stress found among the 1,500 children surveyed. Still, she added, "I’m prepared for what might happen."

"My sister tries her hardest to stop him from going," wrote Derian Insani. "This year she wrote a letter to President Obama telling him not to let my dad go to Iraq again. But I tell her they need him over there."

Derian added, "It does effect our education because any second of the day he can be killed … We worry and pray a lot to protect him."

Skylar Stallworth, 10, said her mom "has been to war about three or two times since I’ve been alive." When she leaves, Skylar wrote, "I also get scared and a little depressed because I’m the biggest mommy’s girl ever, maybe because she’s been with me basically all my life."

Jonathan Spies said wartime separation is "very hard and I can’t get my mind off my dad." But girls, he agreed, do have "a much harder time than others. I can prove it because I have a sister."

The study concludes that multiple, lengthy wartime deployments are taking an emotional toll on military children. Rand interviewed non-deployed parents and their children, ages 11 through 17. They concluded that children who experience a greater number of parental deployments suffer more "emotional difficulties" in connecting to families, engaging in school work and mixing with peers.

The higher stress levels among service kids were expected. But researchers were surprised to learn that problems for these children deepened as deployments got longer or more frequent.

Tencick said it wasn’t easy for her class of 10-year-olds to grasp the meaning of the study from a Military Update column written for adults.

"But once we had unlocked the meaning of it," she said, "the kids were totally engaged in the content."

Of her 24 students, Tencick said, most have had a parent deploy two or three times. Some even left on their fourth tour. When interviewed in March, Tencick explained that four of her children had parents deploying that month, three had parents returning from war, and two other children were leaving Fort Carson for another base. The study, she said, captured the stress but perhaps it missed the strength of these children.

"I watch these kids every day. I admire their ‘I’m-going-to-get-the-job-done’ attitude, their resilience to do what needs to be done, even though there is a lot of stuff going on" in their lives, Tencick said.

A school principal for 16 years before returning to the classroom two years ago, Tencick said Patriot Elementary has been her first experience interacting with military children and parents in wartime.

"In spite of what goes on in these kids’ personal lives, they’ve got the ability to put it aside and say ‘I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.’ "

Tencick said the study correctly focused on the stress families feel not only on separation but on reintegration of a parent returning from war.

"Lots of people have the idea that when mom or dad is finally home everything is Disneyland. But it’s not," she said. "Once they get through the first two weeks, then it’s figuring out what rules they operate under.

Wrote student Nia Paul, "It’s hard to get used to your parent when they leave and it’s hard to get used to your parent when they come back … You have to get used to them and do things the way you used to."

One youngster wrote painfully of how hard mom works when her husband is deployed, and she works even harder when he returns, trying to make reintegration a success for a dad who can "act mean."

"My mental health from stress is not good," the youngster confided.

To comment, send e-mail or write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111


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