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Children of Warriors: Trickle-Down Trauma

11/01/2014 by Linda Jacobson


This is one in a series of educational videos produced by Command Media and the University of Southern California (USC) as part of Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools, a partnership between USC and eight school districts in San Diego and Riverside counties.

It’s hard when parents are deployed. And hard when they come home.

When her Marine husband returned to California from his second deployment to the Middle East, he had grown distant from his two sons, and Christy Pohlmann was concerned about how his combat-related stress was affecting the boys.

Then the couple divorced, the father left for Louisiana and Pohlmann began to see signs that her son Christopher, then in 4th grade, was carrying some of the burden. He wasn’t doing his homework and she was worried he thought he was to blame for his dad’s absence.

“As a single mom and wanting to protect my boys from ever feeling abandoned, I sought out help from the school,” she says.

Fortunately, she found Kerri Bjork, a Navy wife who at the time was working on her master’s degree in social work (MSW) at the University of Southern California (USC).

“The fact Kerri was able to connect with my son made him feel all the more comfortable,” Pohlmann says. “Many children have unfortunately become indirect victims of what our military is involved with.”

Bjork says Christopher felt isolated. She worked with him over an 18-month period on skills such as goal setting and emotional regulation. In a way, she adds, it was as if his father had never returned from the war.

“He had lost the person who helped him achieve things,” Bjork says. “We made a plan for how he could bond with his mom.”

Building Capacity

Bjork was completing an internship at Bernardo School in the Escondido Union School District (EUSD), and she was also part of a unique, four-year partnership between USC and eight school districts in San Diego and Riverside counties. Called Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools, the project placed MSW students in schools with high numbers of military children, and conducted research to learn more about the experiences of military children in public schools.

Funded by a grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), the project has sought to integrate knowledge of military students into university training programs for future teachers, counselors, social workers and school psychologists, and to identify practices that schools can use to support military families during times of stress and transition.

Christy Pohlmann and her sons Christopher and Zachary

Christy Pohlmann and her sons Christopher and Zachary.

“Military and veteran families are part of the rich and wonderful diversity of our country. Over the past decade, they have sacrificed much for our national security,” says Ron Astor, the USC professor of social work and education who led the Building Capacity project, which ended this year. “Many social workers are not aware that an estimated four to five million children have had parents serve, post 9-11. These children are attending civilian public schools and living in civilian communities, but are almost invisible to educators and social workers.”

As a mother of two whose husband is frequently deployed, Bjork understands the “triggers” that can lead a student to appear sad and lonely or behave in ways that land them in the principal’s office.

“A lot of kids have gone through secondary trauma,” says Bjork, now employed full-time by the district and working in two schools. “But it’s a hard community to reach because we don’t often seek help.”

A 2008 book from researchers at the RAND Corporation entitled “The Invisible Wounds of War,” brought attention to how the extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been unlike those in the past because soldiers are serving multiple deployments and for longer periods of time. The authors estimated that as many as many as 300,000 military members or veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Yet members of the military—especially Marines—are known to often resist help from mental health providers because they worry about how it will affect their career advancement.

Pohlmann said her ex-husband would not seek counseling because he thought no one would understand what he had been through.

The Right ‘Skill Sets’

Many school districts in the San Diego area have maybe one or two social workers that work district-wide. But what stands out about EUSD is its commitment to placing social workers in every school.

“We believe fully that the skill sets of school social workers really meet the needs of our students and families,” says Kimberly Israel, the coordinator of community outreach for EUSD. “They are trained in not only understanding the mental health components and the emotional barriers, but they are proficient in case management.”

While EUSD doesn’t have nearly the military student population of some of the other districts in the San Diego area, it was included in the USC project for a reason. It was these less heavily impacted districts, the researchers found, where teachers and other school staff members were not as likely to be aware of military children in their classrooms and, therefore, did not have any programs or services in place to support students that might be struggling after another move or with a parent deployed for a year or more.

Bjork and Yashia Vargas—another EUSD social worker who also went through the Building Capacity internship—feel part of their responsibility is to help inform others in the district about the challenges of military life. Bjork says she wants to prevent incidents such as the recent one in Rochester, Mich., where an Army officer was turned away from his child’s school by a security guard who said his uniform might offend students. The superintendent of that district later apologized to the family.

Even though her oldest son is still in preschool, Bjork says she already has to remind his teacher not say things like, “Take this home and show your dad.” Bjork’s husband is an explosive ordnance disposal technician. He recently returned from Afghanistan but expects to be deployed to Bahrain later this year.

Collecting Data

While DoDEA does operate schools for military children both in the U.S. and overseas, more than 80 percent of military children attend regular public schools. Until the Building Capacity project, however, little was known about how these students’ experiences in school differ from those of their nonmilitary peers, or how they have been affected by 13 years of war.

Yashia Vargas meets with a parent in the Project Success Resource Center

Yashia Vargas meets with a parent in the Project Success Resource Center.

The USC team worked with the California Department of Education to create a category for military children as part of the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS)—a health risk and behavior survey that covers topics such as substance use, victimization, mental health and feelings of belong in school. The researchers, as a result, were able for the first time to compare military and nonmilitary students on a wide range of outcomes.

The data showed that military students who change schools two or more times within a five-year period are more likely to be bullied, to be involved with weapons, and to experience several other negative outcomes. The researchers also found that problems for students can increase as their families experience more deployments. A paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, based on the CHKS data, reported that adolescents with a parent or sibling who has been deployed are more likely than nonmilitary peers to feel depressed or have thoughts of suicide..

Likewise, a research project at the University of Iowa (UI)—analyzing a similar type of survey—found increased alcohol and drug use among military children whose parents were deployed or had recently returned from a deployment. That “reintegration” period when a soldier comes home can sometimes cause just as much stress as when a parent leaves because the family members are re-adjusting to being together.

“We worry a lot about the service men and women and we sometimes forget that they are not the only ones put into harm’s way by deployment—their families are affected, too,” Stephan Arndt, the UI professor who led the study, said in a press release. “Our findings suggest we need to provide these families with more community support.”

Vargas has seen students not being able to pay attention in class and wishing they could go home. She has also received reports from parents that a child was hitting a brother or sister and having other behavior problems. Often these issues would arise when a parent had recently shipped out or come home. She especially remembers one 6-year-old who would become more aggressive in school every time his father would return from a deployment. Vargas says this change disrupted this boy’s normal routine of which parent was dropping him off and picking him up from school. She found that giving the child a “transitional object,” such as a photo of his father or an object given to him by his father, made those transition periods less disruptive.

Pohlmann says it’s extremely important for schools to have “an extra support system.” For her, Bjork’s connection to the military was also essential.

“If at any time [my children] have an issue that they choose to internalize or if they aren’t comfortable talking to me, they have another adult they can trust and open up to,” she says. “In the reality of war and conflicts in which our military is involved I find it a must to have someone with first-hand military experience.”

Bjork worked with Christopher one-on-one and then continued to check in with him until he left Bernardo. Because he had always been a high-performing student, she says she focused on his strengths to help rebuild his confidence. Gradually, his outlook improved, and Pohlmann says his focus on schoolwork returned.

“In a sense, [Kerri] was able to give me that back-up parenting I needed,” she says.

Connecting Families with Resources

Bjork says military families that move into the Escondido area tend to prefer to live their lives off base as much as possible. The town is about 23 miles southeast of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, about 25 miles north of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and even farther from Naval Base San Diego.

But living off base can make it harder to access services or programs that are available to military families. That’s another reason why training school social workers to recognize and support these families is important, Astor says—especially now with “the massive reintegration into civilian society” that is occurring for many families. In Pohlmann’s words, “It’s not when they’re gone; it’s what happens when they come home.”

Vargas and Bjork work with outside agencies such as Mental Health Systems, which provides counseling services for military families through its Family Forces program.

And they put families in touch with Operation School Bell, an effort of the Assistance League of Inland North County to provide back-to-school clothes and supplies for families at Camp Pendleton.

Astor and his team at USC are also developing a mobile app to help military families find the programs or services they want—even before they arrive in a new community. The app will provide information on school district, community and military resources including after-school and recreation programs, tutoring services or mental health providers. The app will initially be available to families in five of the eight districts that were part of Building Capacity, but ideally it would serve as a model for other districts in the future.

Vargas and Bjork are also collaborating with school liaison officers, which work on behalf of military families to address any barriers that might get in the way of students having smooth transitions into schools.

“The Navy benefits from having sailors who are able to focus on their duties, knowing that their families are being taken care of,” said Kelly D. Frisch, a regional school liaison officer for Navy Region Southwest. “School social workers help students and their families cope with the many challenges that the military lifestyle brings.”

As of August this year, all states have adopted the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which focuses on issues such as making sure military students receive credit for courses, remain eligible for sports or other activities and are placed in appropriate classes when they change school districts. But awareness of the compact and implementation at the local level still varies considerably.

“I’m surprised how many people still don’t know,” Bjork says.

In addition to hiring social workers that were trained to work with military children, EUSD also serves military families as part of its Project SUCCESS Resource Center, which provides support to students that might be transitioning between schools because of homelessness or foster care.

Randy Garcia, the principal of J.R. Green Elementary—one of the two schools where Bjork now works—says military students should be given the same option as homeless and foster children to remain in their current school even if their family moves out of the attendance area.

Identifying Military Children

In addition to collecting survey data, Astor has also pushed for policy changes at the state and federal levels so that military children can be recognized like other subgroups in school, such as children in poverty or English language learners. Several states have already moved in this direction by creating unique identifiers for military children in their student information systems. And school districts—including EUSD and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest in the nation—have begun to ask parents whether they are in the military when they enroll their children in school. LAUSD also asks families what branch of the military they are in or if they are veterans.

Vargas, who works in the Project SUCCESS center twice a week, has been compiling this data and sending it out to the social workers at all the schools in EUSD. Bjork says she thinks parents should inform schools of their military status, but she says she can understand if students don’t want extra attention placed on them.

A school bulletin board honors military families.

A school bulletin board honors military families.

EUSD’s social workers participate in what are known as Comprehensive Student Assistance Team meetings, where teachers and other staff members discuss students who are struggling and decide on possible solutions. Knowing whether a student is in a military family—information that they likely would not have had before—allows those professionals to better understand any family dynamics or disruption that might be contributing to the problem.

With the school year just getting started, Bjork is already holding social skills and anger management groups in her office, where she has a lot of games, a large stuffed bear and helpful posters on the walls. One poster uses the acronym SNAP, which stands for State the problem, Name the goal, All possible solutions, and Pick the best option and try it out.

Some of her groups include military children who have been referred by teachers because of behavior issues. But she also plans to implement strategies that would help prevent problems from occurring.

“Me pulling them from class isn’t what they need,” she says.

She wants to start a “buddy system” to help welcome newcomers to the school, and she routinely visits the cafeteria to see who seems lonely.

“I can spot who is not connecting,” she says.

A Sense of Pride

Astor also stresses that the purpose of identifying military children is not only to respond to any problems they are experiencing, but also to honor their families’ service. For the most part, educators view military children as resilient, as having leadership skills and as being able to quickly adapt. Bjork wants to make sure they have a chance to participate in leadership opportunities at their schools, such as safety patrol and student government. Many of the MSW interns who went through the Building Capacity program also worked with students to create “hero walls” in which students would draw or pin up pictures of a military family member. They would use Memorial Day or Veterans Day to hold school-wide “military appreciation” assemblies, giving military children a chance to feel proud of their families. One school even celebrated the birthday of the Marine Corps with a traditional cake-cutting ceremony.

Bjork says she would also like to do more to help families that are moving on to other installations, but too often they receive their orders over the summer and don’t have a chance to say goodbye.

That’s why it was especially rewarding to her when Pohlmann popped into her office recently to tell her that Christopher was enjoying 6th grade.

“We don’t often get to know how they are doing years later,” Bjork says. “And that middle school transition can be exceptionally tough, so it’s great to hear he’s doing well.”




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