By Donna Miles
MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Aug. 23, 2006 – This Southern California base, home of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Logistics Group and other units with sky-high operations tempos, has experienced firsthand what other military posts have come to recognize: Deployments are challenging for servicemembers and spouses, but they're especially difficult for children. Watching a mommy or daddy go off on a deployment, especially to a combat zone, can be one of the toughest experiences a child can face, family support officials here told American Forces Press Service.
Deborah Smith-Porter, readiness support coordinator and key volunteer trainer here, recalls her 5-year-old daughter's response when her dad deployed to Iraq for the second time. "She wouldn't talk to him, look at his picture or even look at him on the webcam," she said. Only after her father returned home and took her on a father-daughter camping trip to Colorado did the young girl finally let down her guard, Smith-Porter said. "She had to count on him for everything she needed, and he was there for her," she said. "It gave them a chance to get reacquainted."
Lisa Stehle, team leader for the post's Lifestyle Insights, Networking, Knowledge and Skills program, is experiencing similar difficulties with her two girls, ages 4 and 5, during their dad's current deployment. Recently, watching a DVD he sent them proved to be almost more than the children could handle, Stehle said. "It was really hard. They went to bed crying and saying how much they miss him," she said. "All I can do is hold them and tell them I love them and say that I miss him, too."
Stehle recalled her husband's first deployment to Iraq, when her daughter, then 19 months old, tried to hide the longing she felt for her dad. "She would take his picture and walk about the house talking to it, but only when she thought no one else was looking," Stehle said. As a result, she learned to keep photos of her Marine husband all around the house to keep his presence near for his family. She also e-mails him regularly to share family news and activities and maintain as much normalcy as possible in his relationship with his daughters.
Giving the post's 18,000 families the tools they need to help their children cope is a key focus of Camp Pendleton's vast Marine and family support network, said Bill Bonney, family readiness officer for the 1st MEF. Services range from two children's counselors hired by the base to teams of specialists who help families work through challenging times to volunteer programs that offer Big Brother and Big Sister mentors to children of deployed Marines.
Organized support groups bring spouses together while their Marines are away so they can get information, share emotions they're experiencing and compare notes about behaviors they're recognizing in their children. "It helps them to talk about behaviors (children are) exhibiting and to identify any problems early on," Stehle said. Although reactions vary with personalities, ages and coping skills, all children undergo high stress levels when they're separated from a parent, the Camp Pendleton officials said. Those reactions can range from disruptions in eating and sleeping patterns in newborns to setbacks in potty training or walking among toddlers to outbursts of anger or frustration among older children.
Stehle recalled a particularly difficult period when Camp Pendleton took a heavy toll in Marine lives during Operation Iraqi Freedom II. When 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, lost 33 people and had another 450 wounded, it sent shock waves through the base that weren't lost on the children of deployed troops. Suddenly, a child whose parent had just been killed was missing from the classroom, and other children began to worry that the same would happen to their own deployed parent, she said.
Not unexpectedly, the children acted on these emotions in a wide range of ways -- some withdrawing, some becoming excessively clingy or expressing extreme sadness or anger. These textbook responses are normal and expected, but parents can help ease them with by taking measures to help their children, the officials said. The process begins before the servicemember leaves home, during the deployment and during the critical readjustment period following the deployment. They recommend:
Make sure children know they are loved unconditionally and that their parent's leaving has nothing to do with them or their behavior.
Be truthful about an upcoming deployment, talking openly about the separation to give children a chance to adjust to the idea.
Encourage children to share their feelings, even negative ones, about the deployment.
Give each child a photo of him- or herself with the deploying parent and let children know the deploying parent is taking family photos, too.
During the deployment:
Follow routines at home, including regular mealtimes and bedtimes, so children feel more secure.
Maintain discipline on track at home and assign children specific chores so they know they are making a valuable family contribution.
Keep the relationship between the child and deployed parent flowing with cards, pictures, e-mails and phone calls.
Post a large world map so children can see where their parent is, and use a calendar to track time until the parent returns.
After the deployment:
Give children an opportunity to get reacquainted with the parent and adjust to his or her return.
Spend time with children, individually if possible, doing activities the child enjoys.
Remember that a readjustment period typically takes four to six weeks, so be patient and supportive as it occurs.