- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

Will and Jake Bacon of St. Louis haven’t seen their father since he left for Iraq last year with the Missouri Army National Guard.

Maj. Matt Bacon was a coach on three of his sons’ four sports teams and the boys miss him during their games, said Christine Bacon, his wife.

“We try to take pictures and videos and stuff, but it’s not the same,” she said.

To pay the $326 fees for her sons to play in a local baseball league, Mrs. Bacon received two grants from Our Military Kids (OMK), a nonprofit organization based in McLean, Va., that helps children of deployed National Guard and Reserve soldiers receive tutoring, study fine arts and play sports.

OMK has distributed more than $1 million since its founding in 2004, a milestone marked with the grants to the Bacons. Will, 10, and Jake, 9, will attend a dinner next Monday to recognize the work of OMK and celebrate the Defense Department’s Month of the Military Child, said Gail Kruzel, OMK co-founder.

Events throughout April will recognize the sacrifices of military children.

“These kids give up a lot with their soldier gone,” Mrs. Bacon said.

Caspar Weinberger, defense secretary under President Reagan, designated April as the Month of the Military Child in 1986.

The Bacon family will fly free of charge to the District. During their four-day stay, they will attend the dinner, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the International Spy Museum and a Washington Capitals game.

The National Military Family Association, an Alexandria-based nonprofit, will bring a group of military children to Capitol Hill on April 9 to meet with senators and attend a reception at the Hart Senate Office Building, said spokeswoman Michelle Joyner.

Fort Myer will kick off the Month of the Military Child tomorrow with a celebration of bubbles, said Jamie Ruffini, coordinator of the military installation’s Child and Youth Services (CYS). On April 18, Fort Myer will host a public festival that will include pony rides, a cakewalk and arts and crafts.

Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Belvoir in Virginia also plan celebrations.

Ms. Ruffini said Fort Myer will honor a group not usually “the first on everyone’s mind.” The goal is for older children to “understand they are making a sacrifice.”

Fort Myer’s CYS program aims to help military children adjust to frequent moves away from friends and schools, she said.

“When you work for the government, you have to go where they need you,” she said.

Ms. Joyner said some children use academics or athletics to escape the stress of a parent’s military life.

In a 2003 speech, first lady Laura Bush said, “Military children move as many as six to nine times from kindergarten to high school. By her senior year, a child will have attended six elementary and middle schools and two or more high schools — often in different states.”

Life becomes particularly stressful when a parent is in a war zone, Jane Bandler, a licensed clinical counselor, said on the OMK Web site (www.op erationmilitarykids.org). She noted that OMK sports programs can help military children conquer that stress through exercise and “being involved in a team effort.”

More than 500,000 children are separated from at least one parent because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Operation Give a Hug, a nonprofit organization that gives dolls to military children.

Michelle L. Nelson, director of family programs and community relations for OMK, said deployment can remove a parent who helps the child with schooling.

Mrs. Nelson cared for three daughters while her husband, Cpt. Mark Nelson, served in Afghanistan with the Virginia Army National Guard in 2004 and 2005.

She said she noticed that children react differently — some become shyer while others become more aggressive — when a parent is deployed.

Mrs. Nelson’s 8-year-old daughter had problems with sleeping, ate less than normal and “just seemed more nervous in general,” she said. Her 14-year-old daughter was frustrated by the increased load of chores, Mrs. Nelson said.

Maj. Bacon’s absence also thrust more responsibility onto his family, Mrs. Bacon said.

“They’ve had to grow up quite a bit, more than some kids. They have to make breakfast, lunch and dinner some days,” she said.

OMK also has helped the Lehew family of West Virginia. Amber Lehew, now 21, received funds to participate in a ski club during her father’s deployment to Afghanistan from March 2004 to July 2005, said her mother, Jane Lehew. Miss Lehew graduated from high school while her father was deployed.

Miss Lehew’s sister, Deirdre, received financial assistance to participate in martial arts during her father’s first deployment and to study in Italy for three weeks this semester while her father is serving in Iraq, said Mrs. Lehew.

Mrs. Lehew said her daughters have taken on more responsibilities during Sgt. 1st Class Rob Lehew’s deployments but did not suffer academically.

“Academically, I’d have to say, they focused a little more because they didn’t have Dad here to play games with,” she said.

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