GMP joins the nation in celebrating April as The Month of the Military Child
Military personnel make up about 1% of the total US population. Just under half of them have children. Depending on where you live, your odds of meeting a military child may vary quite a bit. Similar to veteran students (another cohort I am passionate about), many times there is uncertainty about how to support military children, especially if their experience was not our own.
As a military child and military veteran, the best advice I can offer is the following:
1. Focus first on the military child.
I came of age in a time of relative peace, whereas today’s military children have grown up with a mother or father who may have been deployed to an area of conflict for a portion, sometimes significant, of their lives. The military homecoming videos that proliferate on the Internet, and never fail to bring a tear to my eye, were more of an anomaly when my sisters and me were kids. Our dad didn’t have to plan an elaborate surprise at a soccer game or band concert because thankfully he was able to see almost all of them in person. While he did travel as part of his duty, it was usually for weeks at a time instead of months, and rarely to a place where we had to wonder whether he would be injured or worse. While my experience as a military child was marked by the closeness of our family, today’s children may remark more on the separations their families have endured.
Most times, military children would rather talk about their own experience, rather than what their mother or father did/does in the military, so let them bring that up naturally. Don’t worry about asking too much about the individual him/herself, as you’ll be able to determine if you hit on a topic they’re not comfortable discussing. If not, they’ll let you know in a kind way.
2. Your definition of “normal” and “ordinary” may differ from the military child’s—and that’s okay.
To be honest, our mobile life never felt out of the ordinary to any of us growing up, mostly because we were surrounded by military families with their own world map marked with push pins of their travels. By the time I faced my first year as an undergraduate, I had lived in seven different places. Packing up for a seventh move to an eighth address didn’t seem like that big of a deal. My father was an expert in maximizing station wagon space, skills honed throughout his career as an army officer and father of three kids who always seemed intent on bringing more stuff than we needed, whether for a quick weekend trip or a move to a college residence hall.
Certainly share your own experience with military children as well. Just keep in mind that your stability in residence growing up is no more normal or ordinary than their mobile experience. There are clear pros and cons to each.
3. Focus on where the military child has been rather than where he/she lives.
I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. We saw parts of the country and parts of the world that still hold some of our favorite memories. Anytime someone talks about Germany, where we spent five of our six years overseas, I am flooded with memories of sounds and sights from our weekend trips to castles, churches, downtown markets, and the cultural exposure that was important to my parents in our growing up. My count of countries and states I’ve lived in (four and nine if you’re wondering) is always a “fun fact” to share with others, and usually results in a barrage of questions I’m happy to answer about what I liked best/least about the places I’ve lived, if I’ve been back, where else I’d like to visit, etc. For the record: Best = German food; Least = Rain in Belgium (never been back, yet) I would still like to visit Central or South America.
Start with basic information like, “Where did you get to live?” or, “What did you get to do or see growing up?” as a way to get the conversation started.
Also, by their nature, military children tend to be good at keeping in touch with people over long distances, especially in today’s world of connectivity, so don’t be surprised if they are talking or messaging with friends in other places. Just know that as you part ways over time, you become part of their network that they’ll want to keep touch with too!
4. Appreciate the individual, and know he/she may not seek to follow in Mom or Dad’s footsteps.
My sisters have both lived in the same towns since their own college graduations, and I’ve been an Ohio resident for the last twelve years. I was the only one of the three of us to opt for a military career of my own, which prompted another round of moves for about eight years, but that just added to my collection of zip codes and countries to share as an icebreaker! While none of us would trade our titles as military children, we’ve all found a way to give our families a different, but no less interesting, experience growing up.
A military child may not enjoy all aspects of their experience, and as a result may seek to create some permanence in their own lives. Appreciate the individual and the path he/she aspires toward.
Military personnel make up about 1% of the total US population. Just under half of them have children. Depending on where you live, your odds of meeting a military child may vary quite a bit. When that time comes, though, why not ask them about their experience, thank them for their (and their family’s) service and sacrifice, and look forward to a lifelong friend, no matter where your respective paths may take you.
Image credit: US Army Garrison Red Cloud – Casey/flickr