Just ask: A plea from a mom of military kids

Deployment. It’s a complex subject for us military spouses and equally sensitive for our children. So for April, the Month of the Military Child, MilSpouseFest spoke to an active duty Army family about how their children cope with deployment.

Breaking the News

A short time ago, the Burton family came together in a “his and hers” type situation. The bonds between the new family of six happened fast. Gretchin Burton recalls, “at the wedding, the boys hugged each other, saying, we are officially brothers.” The Burton children are aged 8, 10, 11, and 14. MSF is withholding the service member’s name at the family’s request, as he is in a leadership role.

An unexpected, year-long deployment also came shortly after the marriage. Burton and her soldier husband decided to break the news during two conversations: First, to his two children, and then to all four kids together. “We felt like at the end of the day, his kids had the right to know first,” she said. “Then we asked if his parents would be present with us because we knew it was going to be detrimental.”

The longtime military kids in the Burton family have been through several deployments.

 “He was gone for a significant part of their childhood,” Burton said. She and her soldier husband were confident the more experienced siblings would help the children new to separation cope. 

The newly formed family had three months to adjust to what was to come. The parents stayed upbeat for the children. They threw big birthday parties, and then, like many military families, they had one final “hoorah,” as Burton called it; a vacation together with extended family. And then it was time to say goodbye. “We are all equally devastated,” Burton said. 

Halfway Mark

“Time is moving backward. It feels slower than a pregnancy,” Burton said; they have just reached the halfway mark of the deployment. Although the kids are all facing the same challenges, they have handled the stress and sadness differently. “Overall, it is a struggle for them,” said Burton. 

Their 8-year-old daughter misses her father most at bedtime. “She lays down, and her mind is quiet, the room is quiet – and that’s when she grabs studded animals, and it hits home for her,” Burton said. 

Their 10-year-old son is athletic and has difficulty at games without his father around. “The aftermath of the sporting event is when he feels it most because he’s used to everyone being present and congratulating him, and that’s hard for him,” Burton said. 

“Anytime he’s alone, it is hard for him,” Burton said of their 11-year-old son. 

As for their 14-year-old daughter, “I think she’s felt it in general. It’s harder to pinpoint the time. She tried pushing it away, not feeling it; she’s the most adult about it,” said Burton.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Burton family’s favorite movie is “The Nightmare Before Christmas” – it’s what they look forward to the most. So they like to FaceTime with their deployed dad and have a movie night. “We all have popcorn, including him. We pause it to talk and have bathroom breaks,” Burton said.

Virtual movie night is something they’ve created to keep their family close during the time apart. The Burton family faces additional separation when the family is split because of the custody agreement. 

The Resentment

“We tried to appeal the deployment because the kids had just survived divorce,” Burton said.
“And we were denied. We both feel a lot of resentment for that.” However, Burton doesn’t feel like the military saw the bigger picture. “Sometimes people’s lives are more important than their job,” she said. 

Blue Star Families recently reported that 80% of active-duty respondents had been separated from their family/servicemembers due to military service in the past 18 months. 

Burton openly admits the deployment is “the most devastating thing I have ever experienced in my life—seeing my kids hurt and suffer.” 

Although she has a support system of local family and friends, she has an ask for other adults in her kids’ lives, including teachers and coaches. “I think everyone is scared and walking on eggshells. I know teachers and coaches have a lot on their plate, but if they could just ask. They want to talk about it. They want to tell you something he told them or sent them,” she said. 

The Homecoming 

Even though they don’t have a date, the Burton family plans to take a trip when their soldier returns. They are also making plans for his retirement. Their family has decided the kids have sacrificed enough. 

“My husband is a hero, and I love him so much. The devastation on our family is not considered. You are sacrificing so much family, lifestyle, and money,” Burton said. 

Are you interested in learning more about resources for your military child? MilSpouseFest is coming to the National Capital Region on April 26th and 28th! Dr. Becky Porter will have an exclusive message for event attendees in honor of the Month of the Military Child. Attend in person on either day or virtually on April 28th. To learn more and RSVP, click here.

Here is a list of resources available to military families dealing with separation & deployment. 

Military One Source 

Military Child Organization 

Military Kids Connect

National Institute of Mental Health 

Youth Mental Health Project 

United Through Reading 

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