Children Affected by Physical, Mental Problems of Returning Troops

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By Sandra Basu

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, WA—At a recent resiliency camp held here, 60 children getting ready for the return of a parent from long deployment were asked to write down all of the bad thoughts they had faced in the past year—because of deployment or anxious anticipation about the return. All of the notes then were gathered and set ablaze, as the children discussed the importance of letting those concerns disappear as if they were smoke.

Military family life consultants, family readiness group members and volunteers organized Camp Arrowhead, a resiliency camp for the children of soldiers assigned to 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division’s, at Lewis North Chapel on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The idea behind the program was that, while soldiers benefit from reintegration programs before they come home and sometimes even spouses are offered seminars on preparing for the return, children often have been left out.

The organizer for Camp Arrowhead, Norma Melo, sets fire to all the bad thoughts that have been collected throughout the day during the camp at Lewis North Chapel, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA. —Photo by Sgt. Austan Owen.

Children, ages 6 to 17-years-old, were invited out to participate in arts and crafts, eat lunch and bond with other youngsters facing similar situations. Counselors helped guide discussions and resolve anxieties over seeing a parent after such a long time apart.

“Sometimes kids will listen to other people before they will listen to their mom,” said Caroline Webster, the brigade commander’s wife. “These are all licensed clinical social workers that are in the school, familiar with the kids and the struggles that they are going through.”

“At the end of the day we wanted our kids to have the opportunity to get ready for their mom or dad to come home,” she added.

“That program is one of growing number of efforts to help improve the psychological health of children who face a parent’s lengthy deployment.

“We can’t separate the health of family members and servicemembers. They are interrelated and connected. They powerfully impact each other in ways that we need to understand as clinicians and we also need to be prepared to address,” Stephen Cozza, MD, associate director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress and professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, said at a DCoE webinar earlier this year.

The effect of deployments on children has been a growing concern. A January 2011 White House report Strengthening Our Military Families noted that “the cumulative impact of multiple deployments is associated with more emotional difficulties among military children and more mental-health diagnoses among spouses.”

Deployment alone can cause stress for families, but injuries to more than 40,000 troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have multiplied the pressure on their spouses and children.

“Those servicemembers are returning to families in all states across the country. They return to communities that may or may not understand the needs of military families or the experiences that military servicemembers have had. We need to make sure that civilian providers across the country are aware of the challenges,” Cozza said.

He pointed to one example, traumatic brain injury, which could strongly disrupt family life.

“It can be a trigger to family violence and family disintegration, and parents who are showing poor impulse control, changes in their personality or anger outbursts, are likely to have more problems with their children,” Cozza said. “So programs that really target parenting practices in TBI, dual programs that work both with spouses and with injured servicemembers, are tremendously important to better stabilize the families, to reduce emotional disregulation and to support healthy and adaptive parenting.”

PTSD also impacts servicemembers’ families he said, adding that clinicians should look at the disorder’s larger affect on the patient’s relationships and not only symptom alleviation.

“Oftentimes, we focus on symptoms as targets for our treatment. In other words, ‘Have we reduced the number of flashbacks or nightmares they are having?’, but we may not be focusing specifically on the nature of the relationships with families and how that impacts [those relationships].”

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