Creating a Net for Military-Connected Kids
In Moore County alone, military-connected children number 3,600 and counting
By Lesley Berkshire Bradley » Photos by Brandon Williams
The lives of military kids have never been easy. But we are just now starting to hear about the impact the last two decades of war has had on the children of our warriors.
There are one million military-connected children in the United States, with nearly 3,600 in Moore County alone, most connected to Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the world.
They move every couple of years, making it harder to establish connections to other kids and impacting their academic transitions. Often their non-military parent is underemployed.
Post-9/11, they have seen their military parent continuously deployed and their family unit under exceptional stress.
‘Uprooted’ is the title of one young military teen’s song about his life as a military kid. The song’s author, Matthew Oh, is a 12th grade military kid and co-founder of Bloom: Empowering the Military Teen, a website launched in 2020 to provide a safe interactive platform where teens can connect online and share their stories, art, lyrics and poems, and find common ground among each other.
In the song, Oh talks about being “tossed perpetually. A leaf blown through the air. Scattered around. Everywhere” and compares himself to a tree yearning for its roots. Near the end of the song, a new tree is planted and starts to grow, yet the closing refrain restates that the cycle of being uprooted will continue.
But the song is at the same time uplifting as the lyrics say that despite being “battered and bruised….I’ll keep fighting….I will rise”.
Military-connected children talk about their difficulty connecting with peers, a sense of isolation, feelings of loss each time they relocate, and the lack of control over their lives.
In the blogs posted on the Bloom website, teens write deeply moving words exploring issues like ‘Where is home?’, ‘Who are my friends?’, “Am I alone?”. Although these are the types of questions many civilian teens ask, the military teens have added pressures.
“Military teens’ wellbeing is low”, according to a May 2021 survey of over 2000 military teenagers between the ages of 13 to 19 conducted by the National Military Family Association and Bloom. As stated in the report, 42% of respondents experienced low mental well-being on the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale. And, nearly 40% said that their military parent had been wounded either physically or mentally.
With military kids accounting for nearly one-third of our county’s student body, building supports for these military students is essential.
Four years ago, Moore County School System hired Rollie Sampson as the first Military Liaison for the county school system. Sampson is uniquely positioned to help local military kids. She was a military brat, is married to a recently retired Army officer, is herself a former military officer, has guided two children through numerous school systems, has a Masters degree in Counseling with a concentration in School Counseling from Wake Forest University, and is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Care Associate and Nationally Certified Counselor. She has lived through what many of her students are experiencing.
“Every day I go to work with one thing in mind….ensuring military children and their families have a better experience than my family did,” Sampson explained during a recent County Board of Education meeting.
Sampson and the local Military Family Advisory Council work together to secure a “seat at the table” for military families.
“Our military students transition more frequently, averaging 6-9 schools before graduation, and experience higher rates of anxiety and depression than their civilian peers. They also live in households continually impacted by war, as their military parents have spent the past two decades in sustained combat,” noted Sampson.
Moving every two to three years impacts students’ ability to participate in extracurriculars. It can even hinder getting grades, credits and IEPs transferred.
And it makes establishing friendships challenging.
“We may only live there two or three years, but I’m worth your time,” explained a 14-year-old teen participating in the NMFA/Bloom study.
Sampson focuses on purposeful Transition Support such as new student orientation just for military students encompassing campus visits, opportunities to meet other military students and meeting with school counselors. Plus, there are student-to-student support programs offering regular social events to help grow connectedness.
Equally as important, is ensuring that resources are consistent across all school campuses and meet the Interstate Compact for Educational Opportunity for Military Children including educating school leadership about the Compact and how to optimally use it.
Sampson also spends time with school staff and teachers, increasing awareness about military culture and hoping to build empathy for the military student.
“As kids get older, they recognize the significance of what their parents are doing. That when their parent deploys, they may not see their parent again,” explains Sampson, “ You can’t normalize war.”
The support programs also target the parents. Moore County schools are designated Purple Star Schools, offering an onsite staff person, usually a counselor or an Assistant Principal, at each school to provide support to families along with accessible Military information on the school system website, all designed to support the military connected child’s educational and emotional well-being.
Transition programs set up for military students can also benefit other students in transition, such as homeless students, students in the foster care system and other students entering our rapidly growing school system.
“Family readiness is critical,” adds Dr. Chris Ganis, psychologist and board member of the Community Blueprint for Greater Fort Bragg, “If mental health is strong at home, it will be strong in the field.”
Ganis and the Blueprint for Greater Fort Bragg, offer support to families including continuing education for military spouses, educating local health care practitioners about the special needs of military families, providing support kits for new mothers and offering pro bono mental health counseling to military connected families and individuals.
Sampson, Ganis and creative online platforms like Bloom work hard to temper the stressors military children experience and to help the kids feel more connected, ease transitions and grow healthy roots in their communities.
For military information at Moore County Schools, ncmcs.org