by Chris Cannida, LPC (April, 2017)
April is the Month of the Military Child
She was a tiny, freckled soldier. Sitting alone. Frown on her face. Undistracted by art and activity all around, the significance of the day was not lost on her. Meant to shift her focus to being a carefree child again, to take her mind off of all that brought her to this moment, nothing seemed more worthy of focus than whatever was on her young mind. Not to say that the other children there weren’t equally aware of this part in their life’s journey. Being a Gold Star child is surely worn as an uninvited string of heavy pearls around such young hearts. Yet, she stood out to me as she sat alone, eating her lunch, soft hair falling over her face. The others were at least tolerant of efforts made by the adults who had planned this day of honoring and nurturing. She was having no part of it.
Being a Gold Star child is surely worn as an uninvited string of heavy pearls around such young hearts.
I don’t even know how many days or months had passed since her father had been taken from her during a deployment in Afghanistan. Stepping carefully into her circle of contemplation, I wasn’t sure if my effort to strike up a conversation would be met with disdain. Initially, I just planted myself 3 feet to her right in an effort to join her in quiet, parallel presence at the table. The noise of 20 other children playing ‘obstacle course’ and face-painting was nearly drowned out by the way she commanded that space with her stern look and pursed lips. Very aware that any dialogue she chose to have with me was on borrowed time and with all the graciousness a nine-year, fatherless daughter could muster, I started by offering my name and asking hers. I’ll never forget that 45-minute conversation for as long as I live. Etched forever in my mind is how her dad’s BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) jacket hung around her small shoulders. She offered me more than her name. She allowed me to hear her pain and her plans for the future. “I’m going to be a soldier when I grow up. Like my dad. I’m going to be a fighting soldier. Because I’m going to find the bad guys who killed my dad and I’m going to stop them from doing it again”.
Not one tear fell from her face. It was as if she’d decided to share the sorrowful moments of grief with the determination it would take to survive them. Today, in this moment, she was intent on using that determination to make decisions about how she would live her life. I was compelled by my maternal instinct to hug her and brush the hair from her big brown eyes. Instead, I just listened. She continued by telling me everything she knew about the day her father died. Thankfully, I’m sure she was spared the most egregious details. Yet, clearly, she used the strength it took to fill in the blanks with her young imagination of war in order to forge through the pain and find a decision to thrive.
I’m not sure where she is today. She’d be in the midst of her adolescence by now. That BDU jacket would still be loosely fitting her tiny frame. I want to have no doubt she continues to grow. I worry that teachers in her schools probably don’t have the awareness to understand what she’s been through and may even minimize that it would still have such a profound effect after so much has passed. Her community may or may not produce the financial and emotional support she needs to launch into young adulthood.
My mind wanders to the entire military child community, to the ones who continue withstanding deployments of parents, moving every two to three years, and waking up in a new place before they’ve had a chance to fully grieve the dimensions of loss that come with constantly leaving friends and comforts behind. I grew up in the same community from birth until I left for college. I was never separated from my family for more than a week at a time for the occasional visit with cousins. My kindergarten friends were the ones who walked across the stage with me at high school graduation. The first time I grieved the losses that come with a geographical move was when I, by my own choice, moved away to college. There’s never been summer camp held in my honor because one of my parents died in combat.
April is the month of the military child.
Most of the time my work with service members has been focused on the adults – the active duty soldier, marine, or spouse. Thankfully, on that weekend, I was assigned to support the smallest warriors. One military child taught me more about resilience in that 45 minutes than most grown-ups could teach me in a lifetime. She’d learned to quiet herself long enough to figure out a way to manage her pain, wasn’t afraid to focus on that pain long enough to make a decision of fortitude to see her way through and had the courage to allow some support along the way.
Here’s to the Military Child. Thank you for the teaching us. May we always be dedicated, fully present learners.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can support the military community, consider the following resources:
TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) @ TAPS.org – a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing compassionate care to those grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces.
PsychArmor Institute @ PsychArmor.org – Dedicated to bridging the gap between the military/civilian divide by offering no-cost, high-quality online training to civilians, caregivers, veterans, employers, and healthcare professionals.
Give An Hour @ Giveanhour.org – an organization that helps providers in the mental health community ‘give back’ by offering free counseling services to our prior and active duty service members.
Photo credits: 1: Green Ramp 2003; 2: Used with permission by a military spouse and friend gracious enough to offer a rare photo of her own military child with “daddy”.