RICHMOND, Va. –
Soldiers and spouses weren’t the only ones going through post-mobilization training during Yellow Ribbon weekend for the Winchester-based 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team September 17-18, 2016, in Richmond, Virginia. In the teen room at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, children of Soldiers were conducting their own post-deployment training that didn’t involve slide presentations by a lecturer going on in a dark ballroom room. Instead they were engaged in games, art projects and quiet personal talks all aimed at helping them through the reintegration of their parent who recently returned from deployment.
This carefully-crafted program was put on by the Virginia National Guard Youth Program, an integral component of the National Guard’s comprehensive approach to family readiness. The program was developed because the experience of a National Guard child is unique, they go through most of life with little interaction with or impact by the military, but when their parent mobilizes for a deployment they become a “military kid” with all the complications but little of the built-in supports that traditional military families have.
Kids and teens of 3rd Battalion Soldiers participating in the Yellow Ribbon youth training were led by Master Resiliency Trainer Joe Duerksen, Lead Child & Youth Coordinator for the program, and volunteers from the program’s State Teen Panel, a volunteer leadership group of approximately twenty 13-17 year olds. The teens have training in anger management and communication throughout the year and then volunteer to help other kids and teens at Yellow Ribbon events. The youth trainings at pre-mobilization events focus on coping skills for the upcoming deployment and their post-mobilization trainings help kids to reconnect with their returning parent, but both rely on building resiliency in each child and teen.
“The two basic components of building resiliency in these kids and teens is connection and communication,” Duerksen said.
The connection component of building resiliency is simple and powerful. It can be as simple as two kids at one of these events having to play the same silly game or talking and realize they both love the same movie. That shared experience becomes the foundation for strength through adversity later on, said Duerksen.
“If a kid can make a connection at any of these events then when they encounter a rough patch in the deployment process they are better able to get through it because they had that connection that they can draw strength from,” said Duerksen.
Lehua Martin, 16, of Midlothian, has been participating in the program’s popular summer camp since she was 7 years old. When her mother deployed for the first time this year with the Virginia Army National Guard, Martin says her connection to other teens in the program, with whom she had had so many shared experiences, became her lifeline.
“I’d never experienced having a parent deploy but my friends knew what I was going through because they’ve had a family member deploy,” said Martin. “I feel like the connections that I’ve made help me on a day-to-day basis, the friends I’ve made here are always encouraging me and offering a helping hand, even just as simple as coming over to help me make lunches for the week for myself and my siblings.”
The second key component to building resiliency in kids, communication skills, is more difficult to achieve. It’s no simple tasks to ask a group of preteens, already greatly self-conscious about their bodies, emotions, and— well—everything, to share their fears and anxieties with a group of strangers.
The key, said Duerksen, is to create an environment they feel comfortable to express themselves in. I try fun silly games to get them out of their shell, building to abstract expressions of their emotions, like art projects, and culminating in clear articulation of their feelings.
Military Family Life Counselor April St. John, a licensed psychotherapist contracted by the Department of Defense to attend events such as the Yellow Ribbon, circulated the kids’ and teen’s rooms engaging them in conversation about reacclimating since their parent returned from deployment.
“A critical part of helping these kids to communicate, is teaching them how to identify emotions and manage them,” said St. John. “With the younger kids we use colors; the older, interactive techniques that allow them to function in categories that are more comfortable to an adolescent.”
Youth resiliency trainings, such as those conducted at Yellow Ribbon events are critical to the future emotional health of National Guard kids.
“It’s the unknown that gives us so much emotional unrest,” said St. John. “Teaching them to identify their feelings and appropriately respond instead of hitting, biting, and temper tantrums will have lasting effects. Teaching these skills at an early age stops them from making impulsive decisions when driving, stops them from getting into domestic violent relationships later in life. So it needs to be addressed early and the resiliency will just kind of grow along side of them as they grow.”
With only 2 full-time staff the VANG Program could not do all that it does without the help of volunteers. It’s State Teen Panel provides enthusiastic young trainers-in-training for the program’s summer camp and Yellow Ribbon events, but the organization still depends on responsible adult role-models to volunteer, especially for their summer camp.