The transition from active duty to veteran or retiree family can be as confusing as it is exciting. Through the Transition Tales series, MFAN’s Advisory Board combines personal experience with practical advice and resources to assist the whole family through this complex adjustment period.
The opinions in this column are the views of the author, Mychael Willon.
When I think about the transition from military to civilian life, I believe “military menopause” would be a much better name for this stage of the military lifecycle. During this time of change, a service member may experience headaches, mood changes, insomnia, fatigue, and brain fog. I know because I’m currently experiencing this new stage of life with my spouse on the eve of his retirement.
And with April designated as Month of the Military Child, I can’t help but be reminded of the constant transitions that our military children face throughout their lives. Many military children move every two or three years, and some even more often. Military-to-civilian transition often coincides with relocation for many families as they move based on career opportunities, to rejoin family, or simply because for the first time in a while, they can choose where they want to live!
Everyone who has PCSed multiple times can relate to the fact that you can expect your grandmother’s spittoon to be bent, or your father’s jumbotron-sized plasma TV to be cracked, or worst still, to have the elevator in Barbie’s Dream House broken. You’ve learned how to face those disasters, and move on, knowing that they make for great stories to share with your fellow military family friends as you try to one-up them. But, what are schools across the country doing to help our children cope with the unique challenges of being a military child?
purple star school program
One approach that many states have adopted is the Purple Star School program, which is designed to help schools respond to both the educational and social-emotional challenges military-connected* children face during their transition to a new school. The program encourages schools to monitor ways our military children stay on track to be prepared for college, the workforce, and life in general. (*Military-connected children in this use are the children of our service members on active duty, and in the National Guard and Reserves).
The Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) has been working with states that want to start a Purple Star School program and provide them with support throughout the process. According to MCEC, “As of November 18, 2022, 37 states have received Purple Star School designation, and six states have proposed/pending legislation.” If you haven’t joined MCEC, please do so. They do an excellent job of supporting our military children!
The Purple Star Program means special recognition to schools for exhibiting exceptional support to students and families of our military-connected children. The high school my boys attend was just named a Purple Star School this year and the sense of pride that came with that designation was wonderful. The staff and students made it happen by working together to support our military families.
So how do our children deal with the challenges they face with every new school, new home, and new situation that they encounter when they PCS?
I had the amazing opportunity to speak with some of my colleagues’ children to see how they cope with the unique situation that military life creates for our families. They made me laugh hysterically one minute and tear up the next.
Let me tell you a little about each of them before I share what they all seemed to agree on as to what was good about being a military brat and what challenges they faced.
dannika and mattis
Dannika is in middle school and Mattis is in elementary. Dannika has attended seven schools and Mattis, six. When I interviewed them, Mattis was looking dapper in his rad, red and black plaid pajamas, while Dannika stood behind him posing in a “make this quick” stance, as only a middle schooler could, since this was the last day of their spring break. She was parting her hair down the middle with her hand one minute as she smiled, pulling her brother’s hair back from over his eyes, the next, trying to keep him from jumping out of his chair.
They were quick to respond to my questions and were clearly at ease sharing their experiences. Mattis told me that he’s enjoying a new sport — lacrosse — that he only started playing a couple of weeks ago. He’s already been named the goalie, and I have no doubt he’ll be named the captain of the team in no time. Dannika told me she had been doing gymnastics for ten years, but since their last PCS she hadn’t been able to find a gym close to her to continue with her passion. Military life.
Dean is 10 and told me he’s been to a couple of schools in his lengthy school career. He started at a language immersion school in New Orleans, then PCSed to Washington, D.C. and was fortunate to find another there, then back to the same school where he started. He was quite the talker and seemed pretty comfortable speaking to someone he had never met. I’m thinking he may become a great politician or actor!
As we were talking, we were photobombed a couple of times by his younger sister because they were out for a parent-teacher conference day. He gave me a quick “tour” of his office area by panning the camera around the kitchen, dining room, and open area of the house, like we had known each other forever. He told me how much he liked sports and that he enjoys school. He shared that during COVID, school was difficult, especially recess, because that just meant that you were stuck home. His biggest issue at school? “When I drift away. The teacher calls on me and I’m like, what’s going on?” Military life.
amirah and dj
Amirah is in eighth grade and DJ is a junior. They were sitting next to each other at a table, over an arm’s length away from each other to prevent a sibling encounter, in front of a beautiful, cursive sign hanging behind them that read, “Blessed.”
DJ was quick to engage in the conversation and did not hesitate to put his sister on the spot to elaborate on some of the questions I asked. He loves sports. He plays football, wrestles, and runs track. Amirah has been involved in wrestling, cheerleading, and band. She plays the French horn and trumpet. DJ plans to go to school after graduating to be a mechanic and has zeroed in on WyoTech as his first choice. He’s in an automotive class now and hopes to continue next year. Amirah said she is focusing on medical school as her next chapter. She bemoaned knowing that she may have to take physics in ninth grade in Hawaii and would have preferred to take it later in high school like they do in New York.
They both told me that a highlight for them as military kids was being able to go on a submarine, dive, shoot water slugs, and even pilot the craft! It made DJ consider a career in the military. He told me he really liked JROTC and that he was doing well, but he was no longer in the class. I asked him what happened and he told me that they wanted him to cut his hair. Military life.
savannah and reagan
Savannah is a fourth grader and Reagan is an eighth grader. Reagan is in her fifth school and Savannah is in her third. As I talked to them, Savannah went around in circles in her office chair, stopping occasionally to add a little ChapStick to her lips, looking at me as though she was looking in a mirror to make sure the ChapStick was applied appropriately.
Reagan was laser–focused on sticking to answering my questions and keeping Savannah in check. Reagan told me that her middle school has over 1,400 students, making it quite a challenge to navigate. She said that a major advantage to having a school that large was the opportunity it affords for the students to meet other students of various backgrounds, representing various cultures. She said that there was also a class strand that allowed students to learn a second language through an immersion program.
Savannah has an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) and told me she enjoys getting to meet with a speech teacher for a few hours each week. When I asked her what advice she would give military students going to a new school after they PCS, she said, “Don’t give up and try your best.” Military life.
The common thread that tied the stories of these amazing military children together was the fact that making new friends and moving away from old friends was both the best and worst thing about military life. They shared with me that some of their schools helped ease transitions to a new school by assigning them “buddies” and that helped them at least to get acclimated to the new building and find classes, and that often those “buddies” became their good friends.
With the many struggles our military children face, knowing that they have friends to lean on and share their ups and downs is important in guaranteeing their positive mental health.
They told me that some schools they attended had programs like “Operation Military Kids Club” where military children are invited to special programs during or after school that allow them to interact with other military children and engage in fun, social activities. Some of the schools made sure the students had snacks and time to get to know each other, often doing a craft activity or even putting a pin on a map representing the states and countries where they had gone to school. Those activities were less popular with the middle and high school students, as it tends to make them feel “different” and they assured me that the last thing they want to feel as a teenager is being “different.”
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to address the transitions our children face. But having possible safeguards in place to help them adjust to new schools, new friends, and new challenges is something that each school should address for our military families.
You often hear that the next generation will face new and unique challenges that we cannot even begin to imagine right now. I have no doubt that’s true, but knowing that we have future leaders, like the amazing young people that I spoke with, I am confident the future holds great promise. Our military children face tremendous challenges each day and their resiliency is incredible. They are truly the promise of a beautiful tomorrow.
As thousands of military families transition this year — due to a PCS or a shift from military-to-civilian life — it’s important for us to remember that children are transitioning too. Fortunately, there are resources that exist to support our youth in managing the challenges that come with military life and their new identities as children of veterans.
- Sesame Street for Military Families: This free, bilingual (English and Spanish) website offers videos, downloadable PDFs, games, and information to support your children through the unique seasons of military life.
- Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC): With resources for professionals, students, and parents, check out the MCEC website for tools to help support the military children in your life.
- Military OneSource: The average military-connected child will attend six to nine schools during their K-12 education experience. With more than 1.1 million such students attending schools, issues surrounding school transition have become a top priority for families and some schools.