NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Phyllis Gerben

GET UPDATES FROM Phyllis Gerben
 

The Cost Of War For Military Familes

Posted: 04/11/2012 2:27 pm

Our current HuffPost Book Club pick is "What It Is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes. We are talking about different aspects of the military experience over on our Book Club page; this entry was created as part of the discussion; go to the page to have your say.

I teach at a middle school on a military installation. This is my second time teaching at this school; my first was just over 10 years ago, before all the deployments.

First, a bit about me: I spent 13 years in the military, during peacetime (always a bit of an embarrassment to a soldier), a year as a Department of the Army civilian, and a few years in a defense contracting company. I've spent most of my adult life in or around the military. I even have a graduate degree in Military Arts and Sciences.

Before this most recent time spent at this middle school, I didn't think much about the cost of war on families, except for the obvious, death. But it doesn't take death to impact a family. Any deployment is tough on the parent and children left behind.

Families are exhausted. You can see it in the parents' faces during conferences. You can hear it in the voices when you call home to complain about classroom misbehavior. You see it in missed and forgotten appointments, in poor attendance at the school play, in fewer chaperones for field trips.

In some ways, things have improved. Soldiers who are stationed stateside are more available for parent-teacher conferences during duty hours. But when the military parent is deployed, or about to deploy, or about to come home, school just isn't as important. And who can disagree? If I were about to deploy, I'd sure want to take my kids out of school and visit relatives or Disneyland. When I returned, I'd want to do the same - take them out of school and enjoy them.

And if my parenting partner were deployed, who's to say my kids wouldn't act out? Would I have the energy for endless phone calls and conferences about my child's misbehavior? One of the parents is overseas in a combat zone. Who cares if the child's a bit of a class clown or a drama queen?

We all know that students who attend school regularly are more likely to succeed in school. But who can blame a parent who takes the student out of school for some family time before and after deployments? Yes, it causes gaps in instruction and gaps in achievement. But families need time, too.

I don't mean to say that every military parent does this. They don't. There are some very successful military children. But there is a cost to military families that is not obvious and even high-functioning families get tired.

And sometimes, the deployed soldier is a single parent. There are times when I call home to discuss a child's performance in school and I don't know who the child is living with. Is the adult in the home the parent, a relative, a friend of the family? Is the parent on a temporary duty assignment for a few days or is the parent gone for a whole year? Surely, if a parent comes home severely injured, someone will tell us teachers? I don't know. The average teacher at my school spends less than an hour a day with each child; we try to stay informed, we try to keep each other informed, but we are not always successful.

And here's the irony: the only child I've dealt with who lost a parent in the war went to school off-post. That's a cost of war that continues, on and on, for a lifetime.

The cost of war I see daily is the effect on children and families, the hardship of the daily and yearly strain of recurring deployments on family structure and children. I can't quantify it; my students are not around long enough for me to see the long-term effects. I just know that there is an effect. More than many others, my students live with instability and impermanence and it affects their attitudes towards school, learning, and the future.