The Story of the Military Child: Why society is getting it wrong and how it's hurting military kids

03/01/2016 08:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Today, my daughter pulled out a journal made for military kids developed by an organization that serves them. It was labeled, "My Life: A Kids' Journal." Twenty-two pages of the 44 page journal was devoted to deployment and a parent being away.

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A military kid's life is so much more than deployments and moving.

We owe these kids more. We need to talk about the positives of being a part of a military family. But there's a reason this story doesn't get as much press; and the result may be causing a lot of unrecognized harm.

A Harmful Message

The story of military children is usually told in one of two ways: the broken child and the teary homecoming. By only highlighting these two narratives, military kids are digesting a bleak future and a made-for-television exploitative moment.

While there has been a lot of analysis of what the message of the "broken soldier" (a stereotype that has lingered since the Vietnam War) has done to the veteran community, what is the fallout of the "broken military child?"

The narrative of the post 9/11 military child, much like that of the post 9/11 veteran, relies heavily on pulling from studies that fail to compare their "problems" to that of the general population. If the military and military family is a cross-section of America, won't our problems also be similar to theirs too? However, the media reports as if the military family should be devoid of all problems that exist in society and that any problem we have is directly tied to being a military family.

Military kids are broken. Military life has made them broken. And that's the message we're sending them. Television tells them. An endless stream of commercials for nonprofits show broken soldiers and families and asks America to donate to help them. And they are told in groups meant to "support and empower" that "It is hard being a military kid" but very infrequently "How great is it to be a military kid!"

Changing a Parent's Perception

And what about the military parent who hears this constant drumbeat of "broken." They are made sick with worry that the moving and deployments are an insurmountable detriment to their military child. Yet, there are zero definitive statistics on how a military child's education or "overall outcome" is as compared to his peers because we don't track military children in our schools beyond just anecdotal evidence. In fact, some studies anecdotally indicate that military kids are actually doing BETTER in school than their peers. And check out this study that found that the number of moves a military child experienced made no significant difference in their academic performance.

What if all of the moves, deployments and change, makes a military child a better adult because, when faced with difficulty, they were able to overcome the challenges because they were equipped with the tools, call it resiliency or strength, from facing challenges as a military child?

It has been bemoaned that we live in a society where parents swoop in to save their children from difficulty or failure, but as military parents we often cannot "protect" our children in bubble-wrap. What if that is a good thing?

Seeing the Success...

As the publisher of a magazine for military kids, I have the daily honor of being exposed to the amazing things our military kids have accomplished. From astronauts to leaders in business to accomplished professional athletes to actors to service members, the list goes on and on. In fact, when we interview these successful people and ask, "How did growing up military influence who you became as an adult?" many, if not all, will say that being a military kid WAS the reason they were successful.

Many military families take advantage of all of the moving to see and experience amazing people, sites, and opportunities. They meet people from around the world, see things they never would have in a non-military family, and have the opportunity to interact with individuals from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and experiences.

And, while the deployments are hard, the experience bonds some families and makes them stronger. A child must step up and take on responsibilities which some label as a detriment but others label as a character building outcome.

But why doesn't society (and our kids) get exposed to this positive narrative of being a military kid more often?

Unfortunately, in an effort to support our military families, the message of the "broken" military family and community gets told more often in order to get funding.

Telling that story is necessary.

Since 9/11, many military families have experienced multiple deployments and there is a real cost to those experiences. Necessary funding has brought us stronger military programming in schools that has helped to make our military kids stronger and transitions easier. Plus there is an underserved population within our military kid community that desperately needs more help. It is a reality we MUST recognize; however, some fear that the strong military family image will lead to the defunding of programming to support those who are struggling. Who is to say that this may not be true?

...While Still Recognizing the Reality For Some

While some families come out stronger, some do come out broken. Post-traumatic stress is real. Traumatic Brain Injuries are real. Suicide and divorce due to the stress of deployments is real. Military kids who turn to drugs or other harmful behaviors due to the challenges of military life is real. Kids with special needs who are not getting adequate care within the military medical system is real. But, by giving 90 percent of attention to those who struggle and by not telling the stories of those who are thriving and succeeding, are we are adding to the problem?

What if, in our effort to "support" our military kids, we are actually hurting more of them?

The teacher who hears the message of the "broken" military family talks to the student only of the sadness of moving instead of the beauty in experiencing new things. The friend who only knows images of military families on television asks, "Is your dad crazy since he came back from war?" The extended family questions "Why are you doing this to your family?" after hearing of yet another study pointing out those who are struggling rather than any study that could be done that recognizes the other part of the picture.

What harm is being done to our military kids by continuing this message of the "broken military child?" A study commissioned by Got Your 6 revealed that "the general population views veterans as 'broken heroes' who are more likely than civilians to be unemployed, undereducated, homeless, and experience mental health issues." Organizations like Got Your 6 are working hard to change these perceptions because they know how harmful they can be to the veteran. The question is, why aren't we doing the same for our military kids?

Today, my daughter looked up at me, holding between her fingers the large bunch of pages her journal devoted to reflecting on deployment, and asked, "What do I do with all of these pages? There are too many!"

I told her, "Write whatever you want on them. This is your journal. It's your story to tell..."

Now it's my job to make sure it is heard.