When it comes to military teens, there’s not a cookie-cutter description, said Navy daughter Samantha Rough.
Everyone has unique experiences in this diverse community, she said during a panel of military teens in a summit held April 19 by the National Military Family Association. She’s a case in point. While the majority of military teens have experienced many moves in their lifetimes, Samantha said she’s never changed schools. But she experiences the drill weekends of her Navy reservist mother, and has difficulties dealing with deployments that often “come out of left field.”
The six teens, ranging in age from 13 to 19, were asked what they’d like everyone to know about military teens. Army daughter Mia Burgos, a sophomore in college, said people should understand that military children are often strong and resilient, despite the moving around, deployments and other aspects, “but we are just kids.”
The teens talked about a wide variety of positive aspects of their military lives, as well as challenges, during the panel and during an earlier discussion with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. They described the continuing difficulties in getting new schools to accept credits for courses they’d taken at a previous school, problems being included in sports and other activities because of arriving in the summer, and difficulty in getting their special needs education programs at new schools. One student said that despite her fluent English, she’s had to take tests to prove her English-speaking skills, simply because of her Hispanic background.
Cardona described some steps he’s taken, and made a commitment to do more.
“I really appreciate it when schools take into account I am military, and understand I have [academic] credits from all over,” said 18-year-old Elena Ashburn, an Army teen living in Florida, in the conversations with Cardona.
But that flexibility varies, said 18-year-old Matthew Oh, an Army teen living in South Korea. Having a large population of military students doesn’t guarantee that a school is more supportive.
“I’ve encountered great flexibility and support from schools that didn’t have a lot of military kids, and not so great support from some schools with lots of military kids,” he said. Elena and Matthew co-founded the military teen organization Bloom: Empowering the Military Teen, following their own struggles with military moves.
Matthew said he’d like people to know that yes, there is strength and resilience in many military kids, “but it’s something we’ve developed over the years. Understand that asking for help is a strength. It’s not a weakness,” he said.
According to the results of the second survey of military teens released by the National Military Family Association, the majority of military teens are okay, but too many of them struggle with their mental wellbeing, said Crystal Lewis, NMFA’s director of research and insights.
“We need to listen to our military teens and we need to act on their behalf,” she said. For the second year, NMFA partnered with Bloom on the online survey. It’s not a scientific sampling, but is designed to provide a snapshot of military teens’ wellbeing.
About 9% of the 2,667 teens who responded reported high level levels of mental wellbeing. But 28% scored low on mental wellbeing, and 37% of respondents said they had thought about harming themselves or others.
Some are seeking help: About 25% said they had sought care for a mental or behavioral health concern. But about one in 10 teens said they hadn’t gotten the mental health care they needed because they didn’t ask their parents for help.
The teen panel also highlighted some of their favorite parts of being a military kid, including experiencing a wide variety of places and cultures, and the ability to travel. For Samantha, it was “cutting a cake with a sword.”
“We’re almost certain if you ask any military teen they’d tell you they love the military life and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” Matthew said. “But that doesn’t diminish or eliminate the challenges military teens go through. We still need your support and we still need your help.”
Officials are listening
Officials from the departments of Education and Defense said they are listening to the teens. “In education, sometimes the best path to improvement is to listen to our students,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
Cardona has taken steps to address some of these issues, and will take more, he said. He sent a letter Feb. 9 to state education officials across the country as “a friendly reminder of the commitment they made through the [Interstate Compact On Educational Opportunity For Military Children].”
That compact, adopted by all 50 states, helps to remove barriers for military children in the areas of enrollment, eligibility, placement in extra-curricular activities, special education programs and rigorous coursework. It is designed to simply level the playing field for military children, and doesn’t give them advantages over other children.
“The military-connected student shouldn’t have to wage battle just to join a sports team, or move heaven and earth to get credit for a class they’ve already taken in another state. They shouldn’t have to fight to join the National Honor Society,” Cardona said, during the summit.
“Military children should be looked at as an asset, bringing value to the school,” Cardona said.
“The Department of Education will continue to advise schools on how to better support military children,” Cardona added.
He also noted he and his staff will review teen survey results as well as the new publication, “The Field Guide to the Military Teen,” written by teens from Bloom, in collaboration with NMFA.
The 41-page guide is designed for teachers, principals, superintendents, coaches, parents, and peers. It describes the military lifestyle and culture, the moving, the deployments, education, mental health, and ways those in the community can understand and help military teens.
“It was time to bring the voices of the military teens to the forefront,” said Patricia M. “Patty” Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy. “It’s more important than ever to focus on supporting the mental health and overall wellbeing of our military children.”
“High stress levels can be dangerous and can have lasting effects on military kids. Finding ways to mitigate the impact of stress and improve the experiences for military children is key, and is a key aim of the [DoD],” said Barron, who has also been an advocate for military children and families in her work for nonprofit organizations before being appointed to her current position.
“It’s not enough to listen to what we just heard,” Barron added. “We absolutely have to act on it.”
Elena Ashburn, who is co-founder of Bloom along with Matthew, said she appreciated that the secretary of education was willing to hear from the students about the good parts and bad parts of military teens’ experiences in schools. “He made some explicit and sincere commitments,” she said.
For example, Samantha described being the child of a reservist in a school where teachers weren’t accustomed to dealing with the emotional needs of a child whose parent is deployed.
“The secretary said he would get the word out,” Samantha said.
Cardona said he and his staff would get resources to school superintendents to provide to teachers and to students affected by their parents’ deployments.
“I believe he’s going to do something to help. It’s not just lip service,” said Army daughter Faith Clark. Her impression, she said, was that “he felt our voices and opinions are important.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.