WMC News & Features

America’s Military Kids Are Latest Collateral Damage

The children of the troops serving in Iraq are experiencing significant collateral damage at home, according to two staggering new reports on the occurrence of child maltreatment, neglect, and abuse during combat-related deployments.

The results of a three-year study recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology stated: “War has a profound emotional impact on military personnel and their families. The rate of occurrence of substantiated maltreatment in military families was twice as high [during] deployment.” Most victims were four years old or younger and the perpetrator was usually the civilian parent who remained at home while a spouse was deployed.

An even greater finding of abuse was uncovered in a similar study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Looking at families of enlisted Army troops with verified reports of child maltreatment, the study found: “Among female civilian spouses, the rate of maltreatment during deployment was more than three times greater; the rate of child neglect was almost four times greater; and the rate of physical abuse was nearly twice as great.”

Skyrocketing stress levels in the parent left behind are one of the key factors contributing to elevated rates of neglect and abuse, according to the research. The JAMA study found that the primary offenders were non-Hispanic white civilian females, who, according to other informal surveys and anecdotal reports, are also reporting higher rates of secondary post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). War-related “secondary trauma” shares some of the same symptoms as a full-blown diagnosis, including emotional withdrawal, increased anxiety, and poor anger management.

The extended deployments of 15 months or more and the reduced dwell time in between deployments are also exacerbating tensions on the home front. Another issue is the Army’s rather haphazard approach to providing respite childcare, family support, and prevention services and education.

“The Army is not really grasping what’s going on with the kids,” said Beth Pyritz, a 27-year-old mother of five whose husband, an Army specialist, returned to Iraq in June. It’s his third deployment in six years, and this time he’ll be gone for at least 15 months. His previous tour-of-duty lasted 10 months, during which time their six-year-old began acting out, and their eldest, an Honor Roll student, failed a grade.

Military kids are experiencing social, emotional, behavioral and academic problems that range from mild to severe, including bed-wetting, anti-social behavior, and juvenile delinquency. In the most acute cases, adolescents have been placed in psych wards or put on suicide watch while their parents were at war.

Well over one million children have had a parent deployed in combat since 2001, but there are few developmentally appropriate programs available, and the Veterans Administration and Vet Centers do not serve individual family members. The Army does provide some voluntary resources, such as Family Readiness Groups, but these are clearly not enough. And although the TV series, “Army Wives,” portrays a close-knit group of women on base, the reality can be quite a bit different. Beth’s family has been stationed at Ft. Eustis in Virginia for less than a year, and she says, “There’s not a lot of camaraderie with the wives.”

Resources and support, both formal and informal, are even fewer and further between for the families and children of the more than 400,000 National Guard and Reservists who have been deployed. Five years into the war in Iraq, and the military is just now beginning to recognize that these citizen soldiers and their families are struggling with different challenges from those experienced by active duty troops, and have often been more detrimentally affected by long deployments.

At the state and local level, some are taking steps to help these families cope. While the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs is just beginning to conduct research on the impact of deployments in Guard families, particularly the ways in which schoolchildren aged 6-12 have been affected, a Boston-based group is piloting a program for families of citizen soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists (SOFAR) provides psychotherapy at no cost for the parents and the kids. Jaine Darwin, a psychologist who co-founded the service, said, “Unlike regular Army children who tend to be in a school with other Army children, the children of Reservists are more isolated and have … no one focusing on helping them to cope.”

For the littlest ones, who are most often the targets of maltreatment, immediate intervention is especially critical. The early years are the formative ones, and the mother-child interaction in the first 18-24 months of life literally helps shape the growth and development of the prefrontal cortex of the child’s brain. When that relationship is defined by neglect and abuse, the brain lobes responsible for higher intelligence, creativity, and adaptability, will be under-developed. So while the doubling—or more—of child maltreatment that occurs when a parent is in a combat zone is deeply disturbing in and of itself, it also has significant, long-lasting social ramifications. It certainly gives new meaning to that old bumper sticker: War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.

Think not forever of yourselves, O chiefs, nor of your own generation. Think of continuing generations of our families, think of our grandchildren and of those yet unborn, whose faces are coming from beneath the ground.” Peacemaker, Founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, circa 1000 AD.

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