Every April, in the United States, the Department of Defense recognizes military children for their challenges and unique experiences that are due to their parents’ service. These children did not choose military service, yet they often endure multiple moves, significant amounts of time away from their military parent(s), and lives experienced far from their extended families. A typical parent may question why they would subject their child to this kind of life. However, some military kids would not have it any other way.
Senior high school student, Ella N., has spent her whole life, 17 years, as the child of an active duty Army family. This summer, her family will embark on their seventh military move, but Ella will forge her own path to the University of Tennessee. This move will be the first in which an established group of friends will accompany her for this momentous occasion. For many of her friends, this will be their first move – their first time away from family and the home they grew up in. For Ella, it’s a rhythm she has grown accustomed to, and she looks forward to what she knows may feel uneasy at first but is sure to be a positive experience.
We had the opportunity to talk with Ella about what it’s like growing up as a military child.
Born at the military hospital in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Ella was only 4 months old when her father left for his first year-long deployment to Iraq. Although she doesn’t remember that deployment, she recalls his third deployment, a 9-month tour to Afghanistan, when she was 9 years old. During this deployment, Ella, the oldest of four children, lived with her family at Fort Drum, New York, a military installation located thousands of miles away from her extended family.
“I was fairly young, so I don’t remember a lot about when he was gone. I do remember meeting with the MFLC [Military & Family Life Counselor] at my school to talk with her and other kids in my grade whose parents were also deployed. I also remember sending him cards and care packages to keep in touch. With the time difference, we didn’t get to talk much. What I remember most was spending lots of time with other Army families. We were like a support system for each other. We had dinners, celebrated birthdays and other holidays, and just spent time together.”
Deployments are a common occurrence for service members and their families. About six-in-ten veterans (61%) state they were deployed at least once while they were on active duty; about three-in-ten (29%) state they were deployed three or more times (Parker et al., 2019). Socialization with other military children during a parent’s deployment can serve as a protective factor and is associated with more positive outcomes for military children (Meadows et al., 2017). Living on a military installation, Ella was surrounded by other military families who were also experiencing a deployment. We asked Ella what it is like living on an installation.
“Living on a military base is like living in a gated-off little town. It doesn’t feel completely isolated from the “real world,” but it definitely feels like a sheltered community. Things seem to move a lot slower, and the community is more tight-knit. I always felt very safe.”
Ella and her family have lived on four military installations, which are commonly referred to as “posts” by members of the Army. She is fond of these experiences and shared about her favorite installation where her family lived when she was in the sixth through eighth grades.
“My favorite place to live on post was Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I had a lot of freedom to hang out with my friends, and there were a lot of things to do on base such as going to the pools, the youth center, and the movie theater. I went to school on post where I played volleyball, basketball, and ran track. I was also a member of my school’s debate team. I made many long-term friends whom I still talk to today.”
The majority of military families (66%) do not live on installations (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2015). Active duty military families may also be assigned to locations without an installation or much of a military presence. Ella reflects about the times her family did not live on a military installation:
“The first time I lived outside of a military community my classmates were fascinated by the fact that my dad was in the military. They had all sorts of questions about how we lived on post and what kind of jobs he had to do. When it came time for my family to move, my friends took it very hard since it was not often that people moved in and out of that area. My favorite place to live off post has been Clarksville, Tennessee, where I live now. I feel more “normal” and go to a school with kids who are both military and non-military affiliated.”
Military children are often described as resilient – having the ability to bounce back from adverse experiences. We asked Ella what this means to her.
“Military kids are forced to face certain challenges, such as repeatedly moving schools, being far away from family, and having to make new friends. They become more easily acclimated to change over time and more adaptable.”
Ella admits that, although she would describe herself as resilient, being a military child is not always easy.
“The biggest challenge for me is getting used to consistency. Since I have moved so many times and have had to create a new community in multiple places, it can be hard for me to go long periods of time without moving or facing the challenge of having to start all over in a new place. I’ve grown used to the constant change.”
Active duty military families move every 2-3 years – sometimes more, or less, often (Department of Defense, n.d.). These moves can occur mid-school year, and, often, the moves are across state lines or even overseas. Ella shares what it’s like to move often.
“Making new friends every 2-3 years is a normal rhythm in my life. With each move, I learned how to put myself out there to meet new people and try new things. Although I enjoy having a wide circle of friends, I am also content with being alone. I have learned to pursue my own wants and desires without waiting for peer approval or encouragement from others. As I have gotten older, it has been more difficult for me to cope with moving since my friendships have become more meaningful. But, with each move, I have researched the new schools or activities that I could do in the new place, such as a club soccer team or fun things to do in the area. I also make sure to stay in touch with old friends. Social media is a big help for me because I can message my friends and still keep up with them when they post things.”
Less than 1% of the U.S. population currently serves in the military (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020); however, there are over 1.6 million military children, including 60% in active duty families (Department of Defense Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, 2020). In communities without a military presence, such as an installation nearby, military children can be a misunderstood group. Ella reflected on this.
“There are assumptions from those who are not part of the military community that it must be so hard to have to move all the time and be far away from extended family and even your own parent at times. It is hard sometimes, but it has just become part of my life and who I am.”
We asked Ella if she had any ideas for what individuals or communities can do to help military families feel welcome after a move.
“Communities can help make military kids – or any new family, really – feel welcome when they move to the area. They can reach out to the new kid or the person you may not recognize in an activity you frequent. Just a simple introduction could make a world of difference for that kid or family and their experience of living in a new place.”
We asked Ella if she had any advice for other military kids.
“Don’t be afraid to get involved with things you are interested in when you go somewhere new and let your interests – whether it be a sport, instrument, or hobby – guide you to find new friends and a sense of belonging in an unknown place.”
Military families often have limited say in where they are assigned and for how long the service member will be assigned to that location. Ella’s family will move at least twice while she attends college, and their second location is unknown at this point. We asked Ella how her experience as a military child has prepared her to go to college in a new town with her family many miles away.
“Life as a military child has made me really excited to go to college. Though I have never lived alone before, my skills for making new friends and putting myself out there when I’m interested in something make me feel secure and confident about what’s next. I look forward to meeting new people and continuing to find myself in college.”
In honor of the Month of the Military Child – April – the Thrive team of research professionals would like to offer our appreciation to military children everywhere. Thank you!
Ella’s active duty family member is an Army officer and is currently stationed at West Point, NY.
Resources to Learn About and Support Military Children:
U.S. Department of Defense: Month of the Military Child: https://www.defense.gov/Spotlights/Month-of-the-Military-Child/
School Resources to Support Military Connected Students: https://schoolresources.militaryfamilies.psu.edu/
Council on Foreign Relations. (2020, July 13). Demographics of the U.S. military. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/demographics-us-military
Meadows, S. O., Tanielian, T., Karney, B., Schell, T., Griffin, B. A., Jaycox, L. H., Friedman, E. M., Trail, T. E., Beckman, R., Ramchand, R., Hengstebeck, N., Troxel, W. M., Ayer, L., & Vaughan, C. A. (2017). The deployment life study: Longitudinal analysis of military families across the deployment cycle. Rand Health Quarterly, 6(2). https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/pmc/articles/PMC5568161/
Parker, K., Igielnik, R., Barroso, A., & Cilluffo, A. (2019, September 10). The American veteran experience and the post-9/11 generation. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/09/10/the-american-veteran-experience-and-the-post-9-11-generation/
United States Department of Defense. (n.d.). Celebrating military children. https://www.defense.gov/Spotlights/Month-of-the-Military-Child/
United States Department of Defense, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy. (2020). 2020 Demographics profile of the military community. https://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2020-demographics-report.pdf
United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research. (2015, October). Community housing impacts of the military housing privatization initiative. Insights into Housing and Community Development Policy. https://www.huduser.gov/portal/sites/default/files/pdf/insight_3.pdf