June 19, 2017
By Judy McSpadden
We’re reticent to look through people’s windows. We might see something we don’t want to see, something that disrupts our equilibrium. When a child is involved, we’re particularly nervous about seeing something that sparks our natural urge to step in, to protect.
On June 6, a group of subject matter experts from the field of military families and wounded warriors took a first step to peer through a window often steeped in shadows. At the first symposium ever sponsored by Our Military Kids, a nonprofit in McLean, Virginia, these clinicians,
researchers, service providers and military families pulled back the curtain to examine the unique lives of the children of wounded warriors.
“These are the kids who have suddenly had to make unique sacrifices in their young lives,” said Linda Davidson, Our Military Kids’ executive director. “Since 9/11, positive steps have been taken toward helping wounded warriors and their caregivers, but injury affects the children too — in dramatic ways. We don’t know the long-term effects, but it’s time to pay attention. It’s a national problem.”
Dr. Stephen Cozza, associate director at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, and an Army psychiatrist for 25 years, set the stage for last week’s discussion during his keynote address: “Understanding the Needs of Ill and Injured Military Families.”
According to Dr. Cozza, before 9/11, soldiers were largely unmarried and without kids. Today, 2 million children are assuming military identities and living through experiences not common to other children. A severe injury can spawn feelings of loss, stress and fear for a wounded service member. At the same time, the warrior’s child, more vulnerable and with limited understanding, must deal with similar new realities.
“Combat injuries and associated illness can have a profound effect on families and kids,” said Dr. Cozza.
“While the service member may mourn the loss of an arm, his little boy is mourning the fact Dad can’t play ball like he used to. Their relationship has changed,” said Davidson.
“Injury,” said Dr. Cozza, “is not an event. It’s a process.”
Following Dr. Cozza’s speech, a panel consisting of wounded warrior family members, described numerous issues that unfold during the recovery process. Andrea Sawyer, spouse caregiver of a wounded warrior, talked about her sons, one of whom was born after his dad was injured. “They don’t know what a normal marriage relationship looks like,” she said, referring to how her role as caregiver changed the family dynamic.
Jessica Allen, the lunchtime speaker, described how important her children’s presence was to her husband’s long-term recovery; yet, hospital staff initially did not allow the children in the room while their father was undergoing physical therapy. As a double leg amputee, it was important to him to have his children cheering him on — being with him to celebrate milestones in his recovery.
Deryn Allen, Jessica’s 14-year-old daughter, conveyed the importance of having her mother “talk it out” whenever she had questions about her dad’s injury.
Stories differ for each family. Some children have become secondary caregivers. Some have experienced secondary PTSD. Many have struggled, confused about their parents’ “invisible injuries.” According to Dr. Cozza, negative parenting impacts from PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) can range from detachment to higher levels of violence; parent distraction sometimes leads to child injury.
The symposium’s second panel addressed lessons learned, asking what has worked and what hasn’t for children of injured service members. Dr. William Beardsley, academic chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and the Gardner Monks Professor of Child Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, described general research about depression and families that he believes should be disseminated throughout the military family sphere.
Panel participants came from organizations, such as the Rand Corporation, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and the Military Child Education Coalition. Through these various facets in a prism of care, commonalities emerged during the day.
Davidson said, “We all agreed on the importance of knowing our peers and of identifying gaps in family-based care.”
Shared lessons learned included a belief in the need for continuity of support, the role of activities and community integration for military kids, and the value of timely data for everyone working in this sphere.
The final panel of the day, moderated by Rosemary Williams, formerly with Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, shared ideas for moving forward. They deliberated the best role for governmental involvement, the best methods of partnering, and ways to spend dollars more wisely.
Davidson said, “The participants know we need to share our expertise and be better at referring families to each other.”
At the end of the day, all participants appeared enthusiastic about future collaboration for military children.
“What we’re after is a unity of vision,” said Davidson. “Those of us working in the wounded warrior world can use a more integrated focus, more cohesive treatments – call it what you will. Tuesday marked a terrific first step toward that end.”