Purdue reaches out to military families and service members
At a Passport Toward Success event, a girl participates in an activity at “Feelings Island” where children talk about their feelings and experiences during a deployment. (Photo provided by Purdue Alumnus)
Editor's note: The following story originally appeared in the May/June issue of Purdue Alumnus magazine.
Preparation met opportunity at Purdue on 9/11. The University's Military Family Research Institute, already a year old, found itself on the domestic front lines to serve in the War on Terror.
Now, as it celebrates its first decade, the institute is helping lead the charge for military members and their families. MFRI combines engagement with research to reach out to children who are struggling to cope with the absence and return of a military parent. It is a catalyst for community support. And when the service members and veterans return to college, chances are they will find the support they need, thanks to the institute's efforts.
Passport for Success
"I had nightmares, and my dad was always in them," said a 7-year-old boy.
When parents are sent in harms way, their children and spouses also are serving their country at home. In Indiana, most of those sent to combat zones are citizen soldiers — members of the National Guard or Reserves. Unlike those from communities where there are major military installations, these children often know no one else whose parents are serving.
It's hard for others to understand what it's like, how you might be scared but have to be brave. Many of the children worry about the parents who are left at home and feel responsible for supporting them. Some have trouble sleeping. Others try to bury their fears and frustrations, and don't ask for help.
In response, MFRI designed Passport Toward Success to assist families as they reconnect after the tours of duty are over.
"One of the hardest parts of a long deployment is the separation and reintegration of citizen-soldiers back to civilian life," says Kathy Broniarczyk, MFRI director of outreach.
More than 200 children have participated in the four-hour clinics statewide, visiting each of three "islands" to learn how to share their feelings about deployment, develop skills for coping, and learn to communicate to solve problems. On the feelings island, the children create reunion posters that share their doubts and fears, sadness, and pride.
What made you sad? You didn't get to watch me tumbling at Champion All Stars.
What made you proud? I learned to tie my shoes.
On the relaxation island, they talk about positive ways to respond to stress such as taking the dog for a walk. On the communication island, they work on developing skills to explain their frustrations and hurts using "I" statements.
They also learn that communication needs to be two-way. In one of the sessions, they are told how to build a replica of a model but aren't allowed to see it. They also can't ask clarifying questions. Then they build it again, but this time they can ask questions. The difference is often dramatic, and the lesson is learned.
The reunions often bring out differences in rules and schedules. Twenty percent of the children says that when their mom or dad returned, they had a hard time grasping that the 10-year-old son or daughter was a year older. There was stress over liberties and expectations such as curfew, bedtime, or chores.
The Indiana National Guard has made Passport Toward Success standard for the returning soldiers' children. Indiana is one of the few states to offer such programs for children.
Small grants for community readiness
As part of MFRI's outreach, Broniarczyk deploys staff and volunteers around the state to help mobilize communities to start support efforts.
"These people are the boots on the ground who can best survey the needs and then make things happen," she says.
With small grants ranging up to $2,500 a year, MFRI seeds the projects. Some communities formed support groups. Others launched pen pal programs. In one, children collected donations of used baseball equipment. The parent-soldiers then shared their time as well as the bats, balls, and gloves with the Iraqi children.
Many areas have launched information campaigns to let people know how to help.
"Military families have a tendency to be proud and want to show the world they are strong," Broniarczyk says. "They are reluctant to ask for help, so you need to offer them a specific service. Don't just say 'Let me know if you need me.'
"When you shovel your walk, just do theirs, too. Invite their children over to play with your children to give the at-home parent a break. Or say, 'I'm going to the store; do you want anything?'"
MFRI also reaches out to healthcare providers, including those who specialize in mental health.
"Recently, more service members have taken their lives than have died at the hands of enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, institute director. "We need to be alert to signs of emotional stress. There must be places to which they can turn in every community."
MFRI also has built a resource base for key groups such as teachers, healthcare providers, and libraries. Libraries, often the hub of small communities, are at the forefront. In 34 states, libraries have created Heroes Trees leading up to Veteran's Day, featuring photos of county residents who had served in the military at any time.
If Operation Purple had a theme song, it would be "Kids Serve Too!" Think camp, free, with a twist. All the 30,000 participants to date have parents who will soon be leaving, are serving outside the country, or have just returned.
Purdue MFRI and the Department of Health and Kinesiology operate one of the few camps located on a college campus. About 50 teens and pre-teens a year have participated since 2008, staying at a Purdue residence hall.
The campers cheer each other as they scale rock walls and test their bravery on a high-ropes course. They feed baby calves and hold baby pigs, canoe Sugar Creek, and simulate shooting rifles.
"A lot of times these kids are mature beyond their ages," says Bonnie Blankenship, Purdue associate professor of health and kinesiology. "They are having to take on responsibilities at home like mowing the lawn or fixing things to fill in for the parent who is gone.
"We had a 10-year-old boy who really missed his dad, but also says he tried to help take care of his sisters."
MacDermid Wadsworth adds, "We often think children don't have the cognitive ability to put themselves in place of others. Here was a child who was taking that on himself. His sisters were a little older, but he was the only boy. He thought of himself as the dad. And he worried that someday he was going to have to face his absent parent and find out if he did a good enough job."
Operation Purple is supported nationally by the National Military Family Association with funding from the Sierra Club and others.
Many recent veterans now can attend college for free thanks to Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits. That opportunity, though, comes with challenges. MFRI's response is Operation Diploma.
"Studies have shown that these GIs often feel alone and misunderstood when they arrive on campus," says Stacie Hitt, the program's director. "There are academic, financial, physical, and emotional challenges. In some cases, adjusting to a freer atmosphere is a challenge. They no longer will be told what to do and when to do it, and so they must adjust to setting their own schedule. "
MFRI encourages Indiana higher education institutions to take steps to make this transition easier. The first year $270,000 was granted, up to $15,000 for each proposal approved.
Purdue and others used grants to establish a student resource office for veterans. Some institutions consolidated and coordinated services. Staff time was dedicated for tutoring or academic support.
This year she expects to give $1.1 million to fund about 25 grants of as much as $100,000 per project.
"We will be looking for initiatives that also show institutional commitment to sustain them," Hitt says. "We are looking for regional collaboration or coordination across all campuses in a system."
Discovery and learning
"There is a difference between intuition and evidence," Hitt says. "MFRI researchers collect data that point to promising areas to pursue. We look at what works. We build on evidence that already exists, move to next level, and then can share data with others." The investigators work alongside graduate and undergraduate students, providing an important learning component.
Purdue's research already has played a role in influencing policy, most recently in the section of the Family Medical Leave Act that pertains to military families. Now, the at-home spouse can take job-protected time off work to attend reintegration training.
MFRI research shows that military families face many tough issues, such as information ambiguity.
"Deployed parents worry they can't take care of their families when, for example, one of them is sick or the car breaks down," MacDermid Wadsworth says. "On the other hand, they don't want their families to worry about them, so often they don't share what little they can about their day-to-day lives, let alone about any threats they might be facing.
"At-home parents worry about the service member's safety. To shield them, however, they tend not to share information about the troubles at home. Meanwhile, they have very little information and are riveted to the news, listening to the names of the units. Both spouses worry about what's not being said.
"We now know how corrosive such ambiguity can be. This underscores how important it is for the military to address this issue. "
Other states are trying variations of MFRI programs, but few, if any, offer grants or couple the programming with such research and learning.
"We make life better for military families now through our engagement efforts, but we're also doing significant research and sharing that learning with others, especially our students," MacDermid Wadsworth says. "That's what makes our program different from others. That's what energizes me most."
Lilly Endowment primary supporter as MFRI ends first decade
The seeds for the Military and Family Research Institute were planted in 1994 thanks to a gift from Lorene McCormick Burkhart (CFS'56) to establish the Center for Families. Six years later, the Department of Defense tapped the center to establish an institute that would focus on meeting the needs of military families.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, MFRI has grown from a full-time staff of five to a staff of 20 plus 20 students — graduate and undergraduate — as well as faculty partners across campus and the country.
Today, most of the center's support comes from Lilly Endowment Inc., which has awarded it more than $14 million since 2007.
"Indiana and our military families are so fortunate to have the Endowment's support," says Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of both MFRI and the Center for Families. Both are a part of Purdue's new College of Health and Human Studies, which comes online July 1.
At one point during the recent conflicts, Indiana had more National Guard service members on active status than any other state. The war has led to 16,000 deployments from Indiana since 9/11. Currently, about 4,000 of Indiana's 15,000 citizen-soldiers are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most have had more than one tour of duty; some have served four times.