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Experts explore ways to help troops, families

Post by Scott Fontaine on Nov. 13, 2009 at 3:07 pm |
November 13, 2009 3:07 pm

Many service members returning from war have a difficult time readjusting to life back home. For as many as one-third, they suffer from irritability, nightmares, emotional swings and more: signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

They’re often not the only ones in their household affected.

The change in parent’s behavior can cause confusion, fright, worry, a feeling of being unloved or attachment issues. Some studies indicate they could be suffering from a form of PTSD themselves.

Scott Swaim told a conference room at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center packed with education and medical officials from across the state different ways to address the issue. For many listening to his talk Friday, their job is to spread the word about how to get help for troops and their families.

“Silence is the biggest killer out there,” said Swaim, a mental health counselor from Tacoma who works for the State Department of Veterans Affairs. “You don’t process it. You don’t deal with it.”

Swaim delivered his presentation at the Washington State Military Kids and Families Summit, the third-annual gathering focused on the issues that affect the spouses and children of service members, from health care to strains on marriage to help for kids transferring between school districts.

A panel of teens sharing their experiences of growing up in the military and a speech by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., anchored the summit. The speakers and presenters echoed a similar theme: supporting a service member includes providing help to his or her family.

“Making sure the families are supported is a matter of national security,” Murray said.

And for many of the teens of service members, that means helping to build understanding between military family members and others who might not be as knowledgeable about life amid frequent moves, new schools and deployments.

“Military families are different, but they’re also really similar to regular families,” Amanda Humphrey, an 18-year-old daughter of a Washington Air National Guardsmen, told the crowd in the convention center’s ballroom. “They go through the same drama. They just have some different conflicts and challenges to go through.”

Those challenges they endure include the prospect of not talking to a deployed parents for weeks. The teens discussed different ways of coping; many said keeping in communication over phone and e-mail was the best way to alleviate the stress.

“It’s hard on my mom and my brothers and me because we miss him a lot,” said Robert Michel, a 14-year-old who lives on Fort Lewis. “But there’s not a lot we can do about it because it’s his job.”

Terilyn Young, a 17-year-old daughter of a Washington National Guard soldier, had a different view.

“I don’t see it as coping because I see it as my dad’s job to go on drill weekends or deployments,” she said. “I’m proud of him. I don’t see it as coping; I see it as part of my life.”

Switching schools can be difficult. Many of the teens discussed the frustration with different graduation requirements and meeting new people every few years.

“It would be nice if the guidance counselors would know that we’re not the typical transfer student,” Humphrey said. “We have a unique home life. It’s not just unpacking your boxes and trying to find your favorite pair of shoes. You want to meet new friends. Your parents might not be living at home when you move.”

And Michel said he and his peers are more emotional than many adults realize.

“We deal with problems too even though it won’t look like it,” he said. “We’ll have a straight face when your dad deploys, but we know he’s going out there and putting himself in harm’s way to protect our country.”

But growing up in the military has some benefits, some of the panelists said.

“I didn’t mind it too much because I have friends everywhere,” said Colby Wood, a former Army kid who’s now 20 and working in Seattle. “I have friends in Germany, Hawaii, the East Coast, Colorado. I think that’s really unique.”

But the military life isn’t ideal for one 15-year-old Navy daughter living at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

“I don’t like being a military community,” Katie Jennings said. “My dad is always gone. … I usually have to just suck it up and know that my dad is out there defending our country.”

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