At any other school, this might be a holiday pageant or a Thanksgiving play. But not here, in the shadow of the Army's Fort Bragg, during a war that keeps whisking away the moms and the dads of these kids for what seems like forever.
The puppet show, wishfully titled Nothing to Worry About, is an Army-sponsored program intended to make children of soldiers more resilient by gently reassuring them that their absent parents still love and remember them.
Moderator Breta Sandifer reminds the 60 kids that other children share their fears and that talking about them is good. "It's absolutely OK just to cry," she says.
Programs like this are part of a sweeping Pentagon effort to emotionally safeguard children whose parents are at war. An estimated 1.9 million kids have a mom or dad in uniform, and since 2001, a third of all U.S. forces have served or are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. In number and scope, the support programs offered by the Army are unprecedented. One Army official says the efforts signal a new willingness by the military to promote and embrace counseling and family assistance, especially as the war in Iraq approaches its fourth year. By helping to care for the families on the home front, officials hope to encourage soldiers to re-enlist. They also hope to ensure that a generation of children will better cope with the effects of war.
"We realize that if we don't care for our families, soldiers are not going to stay," says Lt. Col. Mary Dooley-Bernard, the Army's family advocacy program manager.
The military has expanded coping and counseling services for families, and support groups and troves of literature have emerged specifically for children with parents at war. The latest in the Your Buddy CJ activity book series, due out in April, offers tips to children with a parent who's an amputee.
And a 24-hour, toll-free hotline called Military OneSource has become a lifeline for some families. Operators offer information and referrals for counseling on everything from emotional problemsto parenting. This year through October, almost 100,000 calls or online requests came in, a 20% increase over all such requests last year.
Even as the resources grow, however, military researchers remain concerned. They admit that they're still struggling to understand the impact that the long and repeated battle tours have on the children of those fighting. Previous studies focused on children of a parent gone for a single tour of duty. In this war, families have been separated two, three or more times.
Ten-year-old Kalysta Fern, who lives with her family in Missoula, Mont., began suffering nightmares when her stepfather was deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004. In the dreams, he dies.
" 'Would he be killed?' That was my most-often question," she recalls. "My mom just told me that she didn't know, but that he probably wouldn't be. ... When you love someone as much as I love him, it just aches."
Bad dreams continue to this day, more than a year after his safe return, she says.
Worries and realities
The antagonist of Nothing to Worry About is Mr. Grumpy, a tousled-haired puppet with a bow tie and gravelly voice. "Maybe this will get you worried!" he tells the students. "Maybe your dad's (military) company will get attacked like we see on the news."
That's when moderator Sandifer steps in. "OK, Mr. Grumpy," she says reproachfully. "You know what? If that happens, they have big airplanes and big helicopters and a lot of soldiers who are extremely well trained ... They know exactly what to do."
PARENTS LOST TO WAR
The number of deceased servicemembers who left behind dependent children and the number of dependent children, as of Sept. 30:
Conflict Servicemembers Children
War in Afghanistan 86 165
War in Iraq 556 1,036
Source: Defense Department
At Bill Hefner Elementary where 65% of the 830 students are from military families, and 120 of those have a deployed parent concerns run deep, even among the youngest. Kindergartners barely able to write their names have lined up to fill out slips for counseling. As they did last year, guidance counselors will soon form small support-group sessions with children whose parents are deployed. They will sit in tiny chairs around a small table; on the wall, the counselors will hang a National Geographic map with construction-paper hearts framing two countries: Iraq and Afghanistan.
School guidance counselor Denise Holmes says the children will talk about fears.
"One may say, 'Dad called, and I could hear sand blowing in the background and that scared me.' Or, 'We haven't heard from dad in two weeks.' Or, 'Mom's been crying.' Or, 'Mom's been going out at night, and I'm worried about her.' "
Last year, the little groups gave themselves names such as Tuff Stuff and Braveheart.
"These kids are so young, all they've known is their daddy has been at war, their momma has been at war," says Allison Dickens, a guidance counselor at Highland Elementary School in Sanford, N.C., near Fort Bragg. "It's almost as if they don't have a normal childhood to compare it to."
She echoes the hope of many child experts: Children will prove resilient and can be made stronger.
But Army Col. Stephen Cozza, a psychiatrist studying the war's impact on boys and girls, says not enough is yet known. "It would be destructive to assume either widespread pathology or uniform resilience as a result of these wartime experiences," he writes in the latest issue of Psychiatric Quarterly.
William Harrison, superintendent of the 53,000-student Cumberland County Schools in Fayetteville, where about every third child is from a military family, says, "If you want kids to be learning and growing, they've got to be focused. And that is something that gets in the way of that big time if you're going to bed every night wondering if mom or dad is going to be OK."
In El Paso, the April children CM, 14, Leah, 5 and Brenna, 3 haven't had more than three months with their father, Capt. Doug April, since early 2003. An Army pilot, he was in Iraq for a year, in training for another and on short deployments elsewhere. They hope to see him for Christmas.
His wife, Dawn Vigil-April, has the entire family in counseling: CM because he needs to talk with someone; Brenna because she throw things and bites; and Leah because of depression she cannot shake. Leah "seems to have the weight of the world on her shoulders," her mother says. "She withdraws instead of acting out. She is the one I hope gets a lot of therapy, so she does not swallow all of her feelings, so she gains tools to cope in this crazy world, so she can miss her daddy, but still be happy."
Back on stage, Mr. Grumpy again plays the cynic. "Your dad says he misses you, but I bet he'll forget your birthday!"
A round-faced girl puppet named Rachel sets him straight. "Oh, Mr. Grumpy, he didn't forget my birthday. My dad sent me a neat card, and he's bringing me something special when he comes home. Even though it was late, I knew my dad still remembered."
War deployments and all that follows including missed birthdays have historically had a lasting influence on the children left behind, says Morten Ender, a sociologist at the United States Military Academy. "Not to say they were suffering PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But handfuls are traumatized by that period. Still others consider it a very dramatic and most significant period in their life which stayed with them."
Children of Vietnam prisoners of war or those whose parents were missing in action suffered some of the most dramatic emotional injuries, Ender says. They had increased rates of health issues, accidental injuries, surgeries and behavioral problems. Cozza says another emotionally vulnerable group of Vietnam-era children were the sons and daughters of soldiers with PTSD.
Some of the most comprehensive studies pertain to the Persian Gulf War, which was shorter and had far fewer casualties than the current conflicts. Cozza says the results showed moderate increases in depression and anxiety among children. The deployments seemed to more seriously affect boys than girls, preschool children and those with pre-existing emotional or behavioral problems, Cozza says.
The research has highlighted the need for the military to aggressively urge soldiers, their wives and children to use the counseling and other services now provided.
During her husband's deployment, Amy Huckaby came to see the suffering of her children as a necessary sacrifice that his service to the country demands.
Jason Huckaby, a commercial truck driver from Marianna, Fla., served a year in Iraq with the Florida National Guard. He returned in June.
While the father was gone, his oldest, Andrew, 16, dropped out of wrestling. He was adamant that he needed to stay home and be the man of the family. Catie Anne, 8, woke up screaming for her daddy and began failing in school. Dylan, 10, got into fights. He and Catie developed ulcers.
"That's what happens," says Amy Huckaby. "You live in almost like a state of fear all the time."
The effects can be lasting. Fort Bragg-area educator Tina Lee Miller is the daughter of a soldier who served in Vietnam and died last March. Ten years ago, at 35, she suffered a severe anxiety attack. A clinical therapist diagnosed it as stemming, in part, from an intense fear as a child of losing her father to war.
Despite her best efforts to resist Mr. Grumpy's gloomy ways, Rachel admits her fears to the puppet-show audience. "You know what, Breta? I do worry about my dad being safe."
"Oh Rachel, I'm sure you do," Sandifer says. "(But) the Army is extremely safe. The soldiers work very hard to make sure everyone is safe and everything is safe."
In Maureen Gregory's fifth-grade class at Rockfish Hoke Elementary School in nearby Raeford, N.C., more than half the students have military parents. At least three dads are now in Iraq. Each time a parent leaves, her students write letters and create drawings that are sent to the parent at war. Last month, the class put together a package for Joseph Guthrie's father, Staff Sgt. Arthur Guthrie, who just left.
"I really know how Joseph and you are feeling," classmate Margaret Misner, 11, wrote in her letter. "My dad just left for Iraq, too. My mom, my brother and me and my sister already miss him."
"I am so sorry that you have to go to Iraq," classmate Yajarai Spence, 10, wrote in her letter. "I feel sad and lonely when my dad has to deploy. ... When I'm really sad, I talk with my mom."
"I hope you will be safe and don't get hurt," Joseph, 11, wrote to his father. "I wish this war was over right now, so you could come home. I don't want you to go because it really makes me sad."
School provides normalcy
War is inherently dangerous. And schools know that they need to prepare for the worst that could happen. "As a school, the best thing we could ever do is provide normalcy," says George Marston, principal of Rockfish Hoke Elementary, where 75% of 540 students have parents in the military.
Military liaison officers work closely with public schools to help teachers and guidance counselors understand the military culture, the fears children may experience and the difficulties of repeated separations. Online services and workshops are offered. Some school districts do more than others.
The Pentagon hires psychologists and social workers to work at military installations as "family life" consultants. Child care services also are offered. Community service groups, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, 4-H, chambers of commerce and veterans' organizations are enlisted by military family officials to assist children, particularly those of National Guard and Reserve families who live far from base support.
The puppet show at Fort Bragg was borrowed from the Marines. The Army social workers modified it and now hope to take it on tour.
Parents such as Susie Lozano whose husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Rodolfo Lozano, is serving in Afghanistan are encouraged to attend so they can discuss the show with their children. Lozano's son, Nicolas, 8, is a student at Hefner. She also brought her daughter Amelia, 3.
"I really try to make them think more about turning their sadness into bravery and feeling pride for their parent and what they're doing for their country," guidance counselor Holmes says.
When the puppet show ended at Bill Hefner school, 7-year-old Meghan Dorr walked to the front of the multipurpose room to read remarks she'd prepared.
She told classmates that her mother, a soldier in the Army, had returned from Iraq after a year away. "Don't feel sad, because your parents will come home," she reassured her classmates. "Just be brave and try your best in school and try to be strong."