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Military Kids' Post-Deployment Issues Gain Attention at Symposium

Thursday, April 04, 2013

By Eric Brandner 

Alison Simerly has gone through five deployments and two additional years of geographic separation, waiting for her father, Army Col. Mark Simerly, to come home. For military children like Alison, homecomings can be accompanied by aberrant emotions.

“I always felt this combination of heaviness and buoyancy,” she said. “There’s this initial outpouring of relief and joy and it’s followed by all the issues that come from reintegration.

“He left a little girl and he came back to somebody who had developed a beauty routine and was driving,” the 20-year-old said. “It’s difficult to maintain communication when there’s that growth that’s occurred when he’s been gone.”

Children’s deployment issues were at the heart of Wednesday’s With You All the Way Symposium presented by The Comfort Crew for Military Kids. The event – held at the new USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. – featured panel discussions on how homecoming, transition and resilience affect the lives of the youngest members of military families. It was part of the USO’s activities to mark the Month of the Military Child.

Trevor Romain, the creative force behind The Comfort Crew and the USO-sponsored With You All the Way tours and support kits, said adults often tell children what they want to hear in attempts to fix problems rather than actually listening to their concerns.

“When children have come up to us after [presentations], really what they needed was validation of what they were going through, instead of somebody trying to fix it for them,” he said. “There was a young boy recently who came up to us and just started crying. I said ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘I am now’ and turned around and walked away.

“He needed that place to feel comfortable.”

Dr. Lydia Marek, a research scientist in Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Development, said studies indicate younger children – especially boys – have the most difficulty adjusting during deployment while older girls appear to have the most difficulty during post-deployment family reintegration.

“[Families] had to cope by changing things up, by rebalancing,” she said. “There’s the need for a lot of renegotiation of roles [when a service member returns].”

“We set up the homecoming like a Hallmark card,” Romain said. “And it is always this … afterwards of emptiness.”

Romain and the other panelists emphasized the power of transitional objects or buffers. In a series of interviews shown at the symposium, children from military families told Romain how they used activities as simple as driving bumper cars as a way to break the ice with a parent after deployment.

Army Lt. Col. Brian Zarchin, commander of the Fort Belvoir Headquarters Battalion, said he learned to ask for and heed his wife’s advice about family changes when returning from an assignment.

“You’re used to a different tempo when you’re deployed and the family is on its own tempo … typically a little bit slower,” he said.

Zarchin, who has spent three significant stints away from his family, said communication, understanding and unconditional love helped them weather the reintegration process. The transition wasn’t without bumps. He told a story about returning from a yearlong deployment to find out his son Zack didn’t remember their early time together.

“When we got back – he was 18 months old at the time – he was hiding behind Mom and he said, ‘Who is him?’” Zarchin said. “Before that he was my best buddy.”

While older, Simerly said it wasn’t until she and her father found common ground between his deployments that they began to communicate more clearly.

“I think it’s really easy to say ‘just talk to each other.’ But I think it takes a buffer … to be able to verbalize what you’re both feeling,” she said. “One of our biggest things was music. We went to shows together. We listened to new albums. We would just drive around in the car and listen to things that we both connected through. And to me, those lyrics said what we really couldn’t verbalize.”

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Photo caption: Trevor Romain speaks as Alison Simerly looks on during Wednesday's With You All the Way Symposium at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. (USO photo by Eric Brandner) 

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