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Mission: Family: Illness, war-zone tragedy make family a model of resilience

Jul. 5, 2012 - 02:18PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 5, 2012 - 02:18PM  |  
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Long before resilience training came into vogue, military families bucked up and made the best of moves and deployments, even while dealing with all the other events that life brings.

But the McConnell family takes resilience to a whole new level — not just coping with difficult situations, but pulling something positive out of tragedy. All of us, including resilience trainers, could learn from this family.

In 2006, Army Col. G. Scott McConnell, now at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., was diagnosed with leukemia. The six McConnell children, most in their teens or preteens at the time, "didn't miss a beat," said their mother, Kathryn.

"Everybody finished the year with fantastic grades," she said. "I never had to worry. They were motivating me, asking what they could help me do."

She would come home from the hospital after her husband's chemotherapy to find meals ready. The older children would drive the younger ones where they needed to go. The children researched their dad's condition and began raising money for a nonprofit organization that supports cancer research.

Then on Sept. 14, 2009, the McConnells' son, 24-year-old Army Sgt. Andrew McConnell, was killed in Afghanistan. Before he deployed, he had written out his last wishes, including his wish that donations be made to the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity he had come to know.

Each of his sisters got involved in the fundraising, Kathryn said — and that continues to this day in their brother's memory.

What does this family think is important to their resilience?

• Faith. "It's the foundation of all we do. We really believe in the power of prayer," Kathryn said.

• Making time for each of their children, and staying connected. In Vicenza, Italy, the colonel's schedule was so busy that he'd often stay overnight in his office, snatching a few hours of sleep on a cot. But he had a copy of his children's school schedules taped to his desk, and if he had 20 minutes to spare, he'd zip to their school and catch up with them. "Even if he could show up for a couple of minutes, the kids were elated to see him," Kathryn said.

• Maintaining a sense of normalcy and routine. For example, whether or not her husband could be home for dinner, Kathryn made it a point to have dinner at the same time, with her six children, at least four or five nights a week.

• Encouraging the children to "bloom where you are planted" — getting involved in whatever community they were in and helping those less fortunate.

• Be as positive as possible. During deployments, Kathryn said, "the kids would ask if I'd heard from Dad. If I hadn't, I would downplay it and say that Dad's been really busy, but that doesn't mean he's not thinking of us." She said she's known wives who would panic if they didn't hear from their husband every day. "You don't need to put that stress on your kids or your husband," she said.

kjowers@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Karen Jowers is the wife of a military retiree.

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