When U.S. soldiers deploy overseas, they leave behind families who will feel the effects even after their return.

Yet oftentimes in West Virginia, these families may not be highly visible and probably won’t ask for support.

So Operation: Military Kids goes to them.

The national program run through 4-H and funded by the U.S. Army’s Child, Youth and School Services is using both the military’s resources and state Extension programs to connect families to a broad base of support. In West Virginia, the program is in its third year and receives $100,000 annually in funding.

Jeffrey Orndorff, a 4-H specialist with WVU Extension, said there’s a misconception that because West Virginia has few military installations it is not home to many military members.

“We encounter a lot of local schools that say ‘We don’t have any military kids in our school,” Orndorff said. “Well, we have the numbers and where they are. I have a map and I can say ‘Isn’t that in your attendance area?’”

Approximately 9,000 West Virginians in the active military, reserves and National Guard have more than 7,200 children. The state has 42 armories, various reserve centers and one U.S. Navy base, a communications research station in Sugar Grove.

Orndorff, U.S. Army Youth Program Specialist Richard Switzer and National Guard Youth Program Coordinator Susan Izzo work as part of a larger committee to coordinate support activities for military youth.

Switzer said military families deserving of support aren’t “needy.” Like their military parents, the children are resilient and can be more mature than their peers.

“These kids are serving right alongside their parents,” Switzer said.

Yet, Orndorff says, children undergoing the stress of a parent’s deployment can experience falling grades, behavior problems and higher anxiety. The families see role reversals as the remaining spouse steps into additional roles while the military spouse is away. Children may also assume more responsibility.

Click the arrow to hear Jeff Orndorff talk the challenges military kids face:

[ Download as MP3 File ]

Once the family is united after the deployment, it doesn’t get any easier. Unfortunately, the risks of divorce and suicide rise following deployments.

“The most difficult part of this whole thing for families is not when the service member_ the mom or dad_ goes off to war,” Orndorff said. “It’s not when they’re being deployed in one of those theaters, but it’s when they come back.”

According to a U.S. Army War College study, involvement with social activities was a predictor of lower stress for Army youth.

“For kids that have experienced more than one deployment, the No. 1 thing that helps them cope with that deployment is being involved in extracurricular activities,” Switzer said.

To that end, West Virginia 4-H, a part of WVU, has established clubs at armories in Parkersburg and Charleston and is establishing one at Sugar Grove. And for the past three years, Orndorff and his team have implemented a variety of Operation: Military Kids projects.

One of the most visible projects has been Hero Packs, backpacks filled with donated items to help the kids communicate with their deployed parent and tokens such as Teddy Bears. So far, they’ve distributed 1,500 packs.

The program’s leaders travel the state with two mobile technology labs: two sets of five computers, printer, wireless router, digital video camera and digital camera to help military kids make cards, pictures and videos to send to their deployed parent. As it often happens, many of the people using the labs don’t have a deployed parent in which case they will send notes of encouragement to the military overseas.

To help the families help themselves, Operation: Military Kids offers babysitting training to youth who find themselves caring for siblings or who may need the extra cash from caring for the children of other families.

Click the arrow to hear Richard Switzer discuss how Operation: Military Kids came about:

[ Download as MP3 File ]

The program also seeks to inform school employees, social workers and other community leaders through offering Ready, Set, Go! training five times a year. The sessions educate the community about the challenges that military families face.

Lastly, Speak Out For Military Kids gathers both military and non-military children to produce videos about the difficulties these families experience. Orndorff said the end product can be funny and “gut-wrenching.”

“Coming from the kids is better than coming from any of us,” Orndorff said. “We can’t even match their emotion and their stories at all.”

Switzer says families don’t have to identify themselves as being in the military, but it does help in getting support to them.

“In Appalachia and in the military, the common part of both those cultures is that people tend to take care of their own business,” Switzer said. “And in the military they teach service members to be resilient, so even if they’re having issues they don’t self-identify a lot of times.”

Sometimes the children may not think of their parents as being in the military, Izzo said.

“My son Christopher did not even realize his daddy was a soldier until my husband went to his kindergarten classroom and says ‘I’m a soldier’ because he comes home from class that day and says ‘Did you know dad’s a soldier?’

But for others, they fear for the parent who is overseas or have fears about the parent who has yet to be called up.

Izzo said that the general public can help by donating and assembling hero packs for military kids and can involve themselves in camps and other events designed to support these youth.

Orndorff is confident that the public’s support does have a bolstering effect on the military’s morale. As a Vietnam-War era veteran, he remembers what it was like to come home to disapprobation. But he’s heartened by signs of attention such as the applause he sees at the Atlanta airport from a grateful populace to its troops.

“We need to support them,” he said. “They’re there doing the best they can, doing their job the best they can. And I think the least we can do is let them know we’re behind them.”

By Diana Mazzella
Communications Specialist
WVU News and Information Services



CONTACT: Jeffrey Orndorff, West Virginia Coordinator for Operation: Military Kids
304-293-8153, jdorndorff@mail.wvu.edu

Follow @wvutoday on Twitter.