Parenting comes with its own challenges, but being the parent of a service member is even more complex. A small group of parents shared what they faced, and advice they have for new military parents.
Charles Henckler, USCG ret., and his wife had concerns about their daughter’s safety and whether or not she would be treated fairly in the military. They hope that she receives equal treatment and the same opportunities as her male counterparts. Henckler recently retired after 25 years of military service (Army and Coast Guard combined) and comes from a large military family. He was completely supportive of his daughter’s decision to enlist in the United States Coast Guard Reserves. According to the senior Henckler, his daughter wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. She is pursuing her college degree and with intentions of transitioning to the officer corps.
Debra Turgeon, whose daughter joined the United States Marine Corps, echoes Henckler’s concern for safety. Unlike Henckler, Turgeon indicated she did not initially support her daughter’s decision to join the military. Although Turgeon did not serve, she does come from a military family. Still, she could not fathom the idea of her daughter going into the service. It was hard for her to let go. Of this, Henckler explains you have to “[l]et your child go and expect changes, but it’s usually good changes. Don’t expect a call every night they are working on their being their own person.”
2011 Coast Guard Spouse of the Year Laura Vanderwerf has two sons serving in the United States Air Force. Her concerns differ from what others have reported. She explains that she does not “worry as much to their safety, instead [her] thoughts are of the rumored cutbacks, and the possibility they will cut short [her] sons’ hopes of remaining in the Air Force.” Her oldest son is currently deployed overseas. Vanderwerf emphasizes it is important to “try not to think of what may happen” and that she instead focuses on helping her daughter-in-law and grandchildren get through the deployment period.
Like Turgeon, Debbie Nichols, speaker and author of “Deployed: Grandparents Being Parents,” was another who was shocked by her daughter’s decision to join the military. She shared Henckler’s and Turgeon’s concern about safety. She was especially affected when her daughter deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, leaving Nichols and her husband to raise their two growing granddaughters*.
*For more information on guardianship issues and Family Care Plans (FCP), servicemembers will work with their commands to complete the necessary paperwork before deploying. The Marines, for example, have a thorough FCP package to complete. The Army has set forth a succinct Question and Answer sheet of who would need a Family Care Plan, and why. Information for the other three branches can be found online through search engines or by talking to unit’s Family Readiness Officer (FRO), Chaplain, personnel administration office, or Ombudsman.
Typically, in boot camp, recruits have time each week to write letters home. In some instances, recruits are granted one brief phone call home during recruit training to check in and give graduation information. Once the new troops graduate they have the ability to telephone and, depending on the branch, email home.
Henckler says it would be nice for loved ones at home to be given a narrowed-down time frame of when to expect a recruit’s phone call. He was heartbroken when he missed his daughter’s phone call, only hearing her voice on the answering machine.
Most military parents now communicate with their children via telephone, email, text messaging, and videoconferencing services like Skype.
How parents keep in touch with their military children certainly has changed over the years. Still, when members are deployed in combat, letter writing via snail mail might be the only option. One mother explained she and her son mostly communicated through letters while he was deployed to Iraq. She even had to communicate a death in the family to her son in a letter.* She did, however, encourage her son to call if he ever had the chance, no matter what time of day it was. Phone calls can be a precious privilege in the military.
*With family emergencies, service members can sometimes receive word via the American Red Cross (call (877) 272-7337).
Joining the military undoubtedly changes a person. Parents may witness changes they never expected, as well as those they hope for and those they fear.
What frustrated Turgeon during boot camp was reading through letters about her daughter’s self-esteem being stripped down. The concept behind building a strong military is to initially strip new trainees down, only to build them back up. For Turgeon this was painful to realize, but, she explained, it was “amazing to see the transformation taking place; each letter showed how she was built back up becoming more confident.” Henckler, too, said he watched his daughter become “independent, organized and self-reliant”. Nichols said she saw her daughter become a stronger person than she was prior to being in the Air Force.
Kristy McGinnis is the mother of an active duty Coast Guardsman. She is also a Coast Guard veteran, married to an active duty Coast Guardsman. McGinnis’ son is just starting out in his career. She spoke of her son’s confidence and articulate communication. She enjoys talking to her son who no longer mumbles. More than that, she explains he is a grown man now who is productive and loves his job. Her son, a quiet, private introvert has not lost that about himself. Now, though, McGinnis explained he is more of a “mature, active type of introvert.”
Not all changes are positive, though. Charilyn Damigo, mother of a former Marine, believes parents must be patient. She continued, “Take the time to learn who that new person is.” The major changes she saw in her son included alcohol abuse, nightmares, anger issues, hyper-arousal, and flashbacks. Damigo’s son is currently incarcerated for crimes believed to be related to his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He deployed to Iraq twice. Her son’s story was featured on HBO: Wartorn 1861-2010.
While some recruits are married when they join the service, most are not. There are going to be relationships that come and go. Henckler asserted that the military lifestyle can strain a marriage. Of course, he added, “[t]he resources have greatly improved over the last ten years for families.”*
Alcoholism and anger are what inhibited relationships for Damigo’s son. She attributes his destructive behavior to his combat service. He had a relationship with a lifelong friend turned fiancé, but they broke up in part because of deployments, in addition to his issues with alcohol and anger management.
Mary Ellen Salzano, mother of a former Marine, encourages members to wait to get married until four or five years into their military career.
*There are support resources available to those members and often their spouses as well. A few of these programs include: Military OneSource (for the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, and National Guard), Work Life and Employee Assistance Program (for the Coast Guard), and TRICARE Behavioral Health for all services.
These parents also had some additional advice and information:
Turgeon explained, that for parents, basic training can be an unsettling and frustrating time. She further stated that there will be times when you may feel helpless and may become irate at the way the military does things. This is normal. In this same vein, Vanderwerf asserted that parents should “[b]e prepared to not understand what [their children] are doing.” She also said to “remember the old adage no news is good news.”
Encourage your child, says McGinnis. Parent support groups are helpful too, she added. Still, you have to be resourceful and seek out the support groups. Vanderwerf wished she had known about various Facebook pages that existed for Air Force parents when her oldest was in boot camp. By the time her second son went to boot camp, Vanderwerf came across a Facebook group that connected her with fellow parents of airmen. She was able to gain information about places to stay for boot camp graduation and learned about the graduation program.
McGinnis recommends parents “bite [their] tongues about [their own] fears.” However, others advise frank and deliberate talks about what could happen. Damigo insists parents help educate their children about PTSD. One way to do this is to talk with veterans. Damigo asserts that communication is the key, especially with respect to changes that occur because of combat.
Salzano feels that “[r]ecruiters are there to sell the position…at the end of the month, it is all about numbers.” She also explains that Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) tests can be taken several times. Potential enlistees do not need to settle with one score on the ASVAB. Scores on the ASVAB are what put recruits into possible rating/military occupational specialty (MOS) categories. The better the score received, the more job opportunities for the member. Talk to your child about their interests, talents and skills. Discuss jobs that have security clearance requirements as well, Salzano explains. Oftentimes, security clearance eligibility yields higher salaries when members leave the service.
Please note this article is intended to be informative, but is not exhaustive. The representation of opinions expressed in this article are not meant to generalize, but are rather to give varied perspectives from military parents. The parents who provided input for this piece have children who have served or are serving in the USCG, USMC and USAF.