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Youngest in Military Families Need Most Support in Dealing with Deployment - 2002-11-29

As the talk of war with Iraq intensifies, U.S. military forces are awaiting the call to duty… and military families are trying to prepare for what could be a long time apart. At the Santa Margarita Elementary School on Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego… support is needed the most, for the youngest in military families.

On a recent Friday afternoon recess, Santa Margarita's playground is crammed with students jumping rope and playing four square. Except for the noise of helicopters doing maneuvers nearby, the playground looks and sounds no different than any other. But many of these youngsters are carrying enormous worries on their small shoulders...

"Every day, every night, I pray for my dad not to die at war, says 8-year-old Jackson Loya, a third grader at Santa Margarita. His father has just returned from Afghanistan. The next scheduled deployment for Jackson's dad isn't until next summer, but as a Marine, he would be among the first to be called up if the United States goes to war with Iraq.

Anna Loya, Jackson's mom, says her older children are able to take the uncertainty of their father's situation in stride. Jackson, however, has trouble shaking his anxiety. "It affected his grades last year when he knew that his father was in Afghanistan, he worries more about daddy dying rather than just daddy might be going away," she says.

Jackson's preoccupation with his father's welfare isn't unusual at Santa Margarita, where all of the kids have at least one parent in the Marine Corps. Kindergarten teacher Kathy Johnson has worked at the school for more than twenty years. She says students, sometimes as young as four or five, are often distracted by thoughts of an absent parent deployed overseas. "I even had parents approach me, that said they tried to get their children to watch cartoons, but they wouldn't take the station off of CNN because they wanted to see their father," she says.

Many of the emotional problems children develop during a parent's deployment are brought to the office of Julie Burr, the school psychologist. "It impacts their behavior a tremendous amount, the ability to stay focused, ability to take a test, to stay focused to take the test, they're overly sensitive, start crying for no reason, well it appears to be no reason but it's actually a big reason behind it."

Right after last year's terrorist attacks and the deployments that followed, the psychologist and school principal Frank Gomez decided to create an on-campus support group to help children and their parents cope. The group, which may be the first of its kind in the nation, meets once a week.

Ms. Burr says the goal is to provide a safe compassionate environment for kids to confront their fears. "It's a support group for each other, and that's what they do, is talk about dad or mom being away and how they deal with it, they either draw pictures, they can write letters, just what they feel like talking about," she says.

What they don't feel like talking about just yet is the possibility of war with Iraq, according to Principal Gomez. But he says both he and Ms. Burr know the size of the support group will swell if the war begins. "Something's going to happen, but nobody wants to talk about it right now because there may be some unknowns, as to where, and when, and what time but it's going to happen, and that's when I come to Julie and say gear up, because even though we're seeing people now, we're going to have a high influx of these students coming on to campus whenever that date comes," he says.

In the meantime, military families are doing what they have to do. Parent Anna Loya says she and her husband are trying to prepare their children for the possibility of dad leaving before his scheduled deployment. "We always tell them that it's in God's hands, and we just let it go from there, we just love them through it."