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August 2015 Hero of the Month: FOCUS (Military Families Overcoming Under Stress)

All too often we only hear about the deeds and sacrifices of our courageous men and women in uniform and not enough about their families.

As a result of multiple deployments of their parents and loved ones, military families — especially those with children — also pay a high price, often living lives of loneliness, obscurity, and hardship. These families, too, are heroic and have paid a heavy price to defend our freedom.

In an effort to bring greater awareness to their plight, this month I am highlighting the ground-breaking work of FOCUS (at the San Diego Naval Base) along with Bar-Ilan University of Israel to help the children of our military service people. Special thanks to Gretel Kovach of the San Diego Union-Tribune for the powerful article below, bringing those efforts to our attention.

Two charities in the San Diego area also help military children: Homefront San Diego helps military families who are in dire straits with emergency food, emergency bill payments, vehicle repairs, baby furniture, and other essential items. The Naval Special Warfare Family Foundation (SEAL -SWCC) raises funds for programs that directly help Navy Seals and SWCC personnel and their families, including programs directly helping special-needs children of military personnel. Both rely on donations and other help from the community.

The report below explains the crucial need for the programs these organizations offer. Please, please reach out in any way you can to one of these groups helping military children. — Jim


Military Kids Struggling at School, Study Shows

San Diego breaking ground with support programs
amid nationwide challenges
By Gretel C. Kovach / August 20, 2015
Josh Kirkman raises his arm in triumph after shooting an enemy boat in 2013
during the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce’s Operation Appreciation
for active-duty military & dependents

Aug. 20–Children from military families are more likely to be bullied, get in fights, carry weapons and use alcohol or drugs than their civilian peers, according to a large study of California secondary school students published this week.

Homing in on the military-friendly area of greater San Diego, however, shows that programs to help children cope with frequent moves and parental deployments have been effective at building resilience to wartime stresses, said researchers for the study from the University of Southern California and Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“In many ways, the San Diego region is a model for the rest of the country on what public schools can do to support both military and veteran families,” said Ron Avi Astor, a USC professor and principal investigator for the study, which was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

An estimated 4 million students nationwide have a parent who served in the military in the post-9/11 era of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most are enrolled in public schools.

The research team examined 2013 results of the California Healthy Kids Survey, including responses from nearly 689,000 students at civilian-run schools in every county and almost all school districts in the state. Nearly 55,000 of the students had a parent or caregiver who served in the military at the time.

Most military-connected youths demonstrate resilience and other significant strengths, but a sizeable proportion appear to be struggling, the study concluded based on self-reported behaviors in the survey.

For instance, military kids were twice as likely to bring a gun to school, and their odds of recent use of drugs such as cocaine and LSD were 73 percent higher than their civilian peers.

Children from military families also had a significantly higher risk of getting into fights and being victims of harassment.

Another troubling finding was that rates for the negative behavior involving military-connected adolescents appear to have increased since 2011, when eight school districts in San Diego and Riverside counties began identifying whether students had a military connection. Researchers won’t know for sure until statewide 2015 data from the survey is released.

Looking at just the San Diego area, prevalence of at-risk behaviors harmful to socio-emotional adjustment and academic success among military youths held steady or decreased from 2011 to 2013, especially in schools that invested significantly in intervention programs, Astor said.

Noticeably higher statewide rates for the risky behavior in 2013 could be caused by the fact that “war-related stressors can cumulatively affect adolescent functioning,” the study theorized. Or it might be a function of less support statewide for military families compared to resources available in San Diego and Riverside counties near a large concentration of Navy and Marine Corps installations, the researchers wrote.

“When compared with the rest of the state, where military families are more dispersed and perhaps lacking support, families in the San Diego area may be weathering these stressors more successfully,” said Kathrine Sullivan at USC, lead author of the report.

“Our experience with successful school and community programs supports the idea that appropriate, targeted support directed at children and families who are struggling makes a difference,” she said, citing research data as well as direct observation.

Those best practices are outlined in free guides for parents, teachers, principals and outreach workers published by Columbia University’s Teachers College Press.

A starting point is identifying which students have a military connection, so their personal background, needs and behavioral problems can be better understood.

In Los Angeles, home of the nation’s largest veteran population, the school district recently added a military and veteran identifier on students’ emergency-notification cards and began training most staff members to better support military families.

Another common theme of successful resiliency programs is helping military youths overcome isolation.

For example, the Military Child Education Coalition runs a student-to-student program that welcomes military children to new schools.

During a panel discussion in April by San Diego high school students from military families, one student described the transition to 17 different duty stations. Seven to nine moves is average, said Joe Buehrle, collaborative director for the San Diego Military Family Collaborative, a network of more than 100 organizations aiding military families.

“Those students were encouraging each other to not be afraid to make new friends. … Relationships are important, especially at that age,” he said.

Another respected program is FOCUS, or Families OverComing Under Stress. The program, which began as a pilot project at Camp Pendleton and spread across the Navy in 2008, provides one-on-one training for military families.

“The good news is that we do know certain resilient skills can be taught across families,” said Catherine Mogil, clinical director of UCLA’s Family Stress, Trauma and Resilience Clinic and a co-developer of the FOCUS program.

Coordinating parental tasks, keeping deployed parents involved in family decisions, maintaining clear communication, enforcing consequences and managing emotions are key.

“Parents can say, ‘You know I miss Daddy too, and here are some of the things I do to help me feel better,’ rather than hiding and saying, ‘Oh, it’s fine,” Mogil said.

Another protective factor is a strong and wide network of supportive adults, including relatives, teachers and athletic coaches.

“We want them to have a constellation of trusted adults they feel they can talk to,” Mogil said. “It’s good for parents to say, ‘I will always be here for you and so will …’ and list who these people are.”

Other stresses for children in military and veteran families include economic constraints and the armed forces’ sometimes high tempo for training and deployments. Those factors don’t seem to be disappearing despite a strengthening economy and the end of major combat operations overseas, local advocates said.

In coming years, special-operations forces are expected to continue being some of the most frequently deployed military service members.

The Carlsbad-based SEAL-Naval Special Warfare Family Foundation provides academic tutoring and family support events for relatives of Navy Seals and other operators.

“The men still train as much as they trained before. The SEAL teams and enablers and boat teams are still deployed around the globe. Those families still feel the stresses,” said retired Navy Capt. William Fenick, executive director of the foundation.

The most common stress cited by local military families is financial, including requests for food and child support for disintegrating families, said Jimmy Valentine of Homefront San Diego, another support organization.

“Low-ranked enlisted families make little money. San Diego is expensive. Many young military personnel don’t handle money well and many have few resources to fall back on,” Valentine said.

At Hancock Elementary School in San Diego, where a large proportion of the student body is military-connected, 74 percent of students qualify for free lunches, he said.

And even as the economy experiences a rebound, the military is downsizing, which means more pressures for military parents trying to transition to jobs in the civilian world, he added.

“Many military families who wanted to pursue a full career in uniform find themselves facing an unpredictable future, with discharge pending and the need to seek civilian employment and shelter. There is no severance pay in the military,” Valentine said.

by; Twitter @gckovach; Facebook: U-T Military © 2015 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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