The Harding girls have their own name for the local Applebee's—"the bad-news place." The last two times their father was sent to Iraq, he took his young daughters there and broke it to them as gently as he knew how, over a sampler platter and soft drinks. "I just tell them, 'Here's what's going on in the world, and this is what I have to go do'," says Sgt. First Class Sean Harding. Since the Army doesn't say just when a deployment is supposed to end, he offers his best guess with a three-month margin of error: "?'If everything goes right, I'll be back sometime within these 90 days'." He says other things, too. He tells the girls that they have to help their mother take care of the house and each other, that he may not come back, and that if he doesn't, each daughter will get a last letter from him. He won't discuss the contents, but in essence the letters would give his final wishes and try to say how much he loves them. "We all started crying," says Courtney, 14. "Nobody wanted to hear that he might not come back."
Of the troops deployed since 9/11, roughly 890,000 have been parents. Their children know firsthand the sadness and worry that the Harding girls live with every time their father is in Iraq. Repeated 12- to 15-month deployments are an ordeal not only for the troops, but also for their families. In effect, an essential piece of those kids' lives has been sent off to war, although the children themselves haven't volunteered for anything. The personal sacrifices of military kids can go unnoticed amid the grown-ups' struggles, in part because the scars they may sustain aren't necessarily the visible kind. But they are real and long-lasting, and they are not diminished by the fact that levels of violence in Iraq have dropped or that U.S. troops are no longer taking the lead on combat operations there.
Courtney and her sister Desteney, 12, can take comfort from one thing: almost all their schoolmates understand what they're going through. They live at Fort Hood in Texas, home to 50,000 military personnel and their families, and they attend Audie Murphy Middle School, where 95 percent of the students have at least one parent in the military. Here, the traces of war are everywhere. The school is named for World War II's most decorated GI. A bulletin board in the cafeteria is covered with dozens of yellow ribbons, each bearing the name of a student's father or mother who is in the military. Many of them have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Recently a friend of Courtney's from seventh grade lost his father in Iraq. It was the school's second war death in the past year. "We literally had staff breaking down," says the principal, Minerva Trujillo. Over the years, a regular routine has evolved for informing classmates about the death of an Audie Murphy student's parent. Staff members visit each of the absent student's scheduled classes to make the announcement in person. They say a few words about how the school is a big family and promise that they will get through this together. Then they do their best to answer questions about what happened. Trujillo says most of the kids were very quiet on the latest occasion. There was no crying, just a somberness that filled the rooms. Courtney turns tearful as she talks about her friend's return to classes. "He acted OK, like nothing happened," she says. "But every time someone brought it up, he would get sad and didn't want to talk about it."
Kids do what they can to cope with a parent's deployment. Elizabeth Maldonado, the school's librarian, says Audie Murphy students devour books on the Middle East and its cultures. And there's always the Internet, although what it tells about Iraq and Afghanistan may sometimes be more grisly than a middle-schooler is prepared to hear. Randi Morgan, a soft-spoken eighth grader, collects what she calls "fun facts" to share with her dad when he calls home. It's hard to stay cheerful, though. Their conversations can easily be interrupted by bad phone lines or mortar fire. It's all been going on so long that she can't even recall the first time her father said he was being sent to Iraq. "This is his fourth deployment," she says matter-of-factly. "He's been leaving for Iraq since I was in third grade, but he says if he doesn't go, someone else's parent doesn't get to come home."
It's a tough adjustment for every kid, according to Angela Huebner, an associate professor at Virginia Tech's Department of Human Development. Still, she says, some have it easier than others: "If the remaining parent is doing well, then the child will usually do well." Kids who see a parent struggling may compensate by taking over responsibilities that once belonged to the deployed parent or by trying to hide their emotions in order to protect the remaining parent. "Often, we would talk to a mom that's said, "My kid is fine," says Huebner. "And then we talk to the kid and he says, 'No, I'm not fine'."
The number of kids who aren't fine is rising, according to mental-health researchers. In contrast with kids whose parents served in Bosnia or the first Iraq War—missions that were much shorter and did not involve the present level of repeated deployments—military children today are displaying "clinically significant" responses to such military stressors, says Col. Kris Peterson, child and adolescent psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general. He's seeing a range of problems requiring intervention, from attention issues and heightened aggression to anxiety and depression. Dr. Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute, likewise says the signs of trouble among the troops' children appear to be growing. Childhood depression is a particular concern, although no one has solid statistics on its rise. "People who are clinically depressed can often become suicidal," she says. "For kids, it has the potential to change the course of their lives. Even if it doesn't end their lives, it can change the trajectory." One study showed that kids' test scores tend to drop—especially in math and science—while a parent is deployed, and regaining lost ground can be hard.
There's only so much a school can do. Audie Murphy's counselors, Susan and Byron Burrow, pay attention to what the kids share with them and offer referrals for serious issues. The Defense Department has begun augmenting their efforts by sending child-behavior specialists to Audie Murphy and other public schools with high concentrations of military kids. But they're struggling against the tide: Maldonado says a handful of students have been sent to facilities for treatment of problems like depression in the past school year.
Nevertheless, most Audie Murphy students seem to muddle through somehow. Would they make their parents' military careers disappear if they could? A majority say no: the military is what their parents love. Sean Harding is back at Fort Hood for now, and his daughters are more than glad he's home. Still, as just about every middle-schooler at Audie Murphy knows, U.S. troops are heading into Afghanistan almost as fast as they can be pulled out of Iraq. The girls aren't looking forward to another trip to the bad-news place. But they know it's practically inevitable.