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Deployed troops’ children at high risk of angst

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

Children of U.S. military personnel are likely to suffer behavioral, emotional and social problems resulting from repeated deployments that continue after eight years of war, says a report published Monday.

The Rand Corp., in a report in a peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that about a third of 1,500 children surveyed reported symptoms of elevated anxiety - more than twice the rate in the general population.

The study's release coincides with an acknowledgment by the Pentagon that the continuing buildup in Afghanistan means it will take longer to meet its goal for all troops to get at least two years at home between deployments.

"The more cumulative total months deployed, the more problems their children reported," said Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist and the study's lead author.

In addition to suffering increased anxiety, children of deployed personnel reported heightened levels of behavioral and emotional difficulties, like feeling sad or getting into trouble at school.

About 2 million children in the U.S. have a parent in the military.

Jo Koeniger, a mother of two, said the yearlong deployment of her husband, Col. Mark Koeniger, in Iraq is made easier because of Skype - the Internet-based video-phone service that allows subscribers to make free calls overseas.

"The first time we saw him [on screen, during a Skype call], I broke down and cried," she said, adding that the eight-hour time difference with Balad Camp in Iraq, where her husband is based, still makes communications challenging.

"It's just a question of fitting it in," she said. "Weekends are our time to talk."

Mrs. Koeniger said what the military calls "dwell time" - the interval between deployments - is critical.

Her husband returned in January this year from his last deployment and was told almost immediately that he would be going to Iraq in July.

"You have that hanging over you, even during ... the euphoria," she said, looking back on the weeks after her husband's return.

The report said the impact of longer periods deployed was more pronounced among girls, particularly during the reintegration period once a parent returns home.

The researchers said they were surprised that older children reported more problems related to parental deployment, because most earlier studies had focused on younger children.

The study found that children living on base reported fewer difficulties than those whose families did not.

Mrs. Koeniger, who lives off base with her children in Springfield, Va., said she finds that after 18 years as a military spouse she can readily find resources to help her cope.

That could be more difficult for younger parents, she said.

On base, she said, "you have that camaraderie, you have that supportive military community."

Along with longer deployments, reduced dwell time has been consistently identified as a factor placing strain on military personnel and their families.

In January, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress that by October, combat troops should get 15 months at home for every 12 months deployed. The dwell time, Mr. Gates said, should increase to 30 months by October 2011.

But a set of "talking points" distributed to Army officials and obtained by The Washington Times shows that those goals have slipped as a result of the increased commitment of troops to Afghanistan.

By 2011, about 70 percent of the active-duty Army will be guaranteed two years at home for every year deployed, the talking points memo says.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week: "With this [Afghanistan] deployment ... we expect it to probably take a couple of more years" to reach the Army's target of two years at home for every one deployed.

Research for the Rand study was sponsored by the National Military Family Association, an independent nonprofit service organization.

Executive Director Joyce Raezer told The Times that military families can adapt.

"Our families are savvy enough to know that no important change is going to come overnight," she said.

Deployments rates are likely to be even higher for Special Forces troops and other high-demand specialists, said Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, a bipartisan think tank based in Washington.

"Clearly one of the sources of the president's caution in committing more troops [in Afghanistan] was concern about wear and tear on the force," she said.

Pentagon officials welcomed the report.

"This study is an important contribution to our effort to better understand and respond to the needs of our military families," said Tommy Thomas, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy. "Military life imposes unique demands on our military families."

He added, "They have exhibited exceptional sacrifice, resiliency and courage."

Ms. Raezer said the military has applied a lot of resources to support families and that she hopes the research "will be the basis for more effective targeting of programs."