As a young child, Dr. Margaret Harrell boasted a vernacular far different from the rest of her classmates. While other fathers were accountants and lawyers, her father was in the military, where she picked up a dizzying array of acronyms and insider language few outside the business understood.
Often, those worlds collided. On a vocabulary test in school, she was asked to define “fatigue.” She wrote down “field uniform.”
“I got that one wrong,” she said.
Last week, I caught up with Dr. Harrell at a convening of the Military Child Education Coalition in Washington. As the director of Joining Forces, the White House initiative designed to support military and Veteran families, she was on hand to help develop pragmatic and achievable goals to improve the lives of military-connected children.
The Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) has a simple yet important goal: To ensure the success of military-connected children in the face of unique challenges affecting them. While many children enjoy a stable home environment, military children move between six and nine times while in school. On top of that, regular deployments can affect a child’s development.
A critical mission of MCEC is the development of a networked school system that can shore up the challenges unique to military families. Academic standards, graduation requirements, and credit transfer are handled differently across the country, and an integrated network could help build a seamless transition for mobile students.
Dr. Mary Keller, president and CEO of MCEC, says parents and schools can get involved with each other through workshops designed to help their children cope.
“Positive relationships with schools can not only help with education continuity, but help boost confidence for parents,” she said.
One of the more promising programs that MCEC has developed is School Quest, an online matching tool that helps parents find schools that can best suits the child’s interests and support resources already in place.
A few clear themes emerged from my day at the convening. The first was that military kids will be empowered and strengthened by a concerted effort to stabilize their environment, but they are not charity cases. While they face challenging circumstances, a military household can foster maturity in children. They can take on additional responsibility at home and learn to adapt in changing environments.
According to a study on military families, military children tend to be more resourceful and self-starters. Given the tools MCEC seeks, they can accomplish great things in life.
The second theme was a subtle concern for the future of military and Veteran families. The paradoxical nature of the last ten years of war made life on military and Veteran families more difficult, but with it came awareness of those challenges, as well as support infrastructures that MCEC helped to build. When the wars are ended, schools, communities, lawmakers, and civilian parents may think the challenges have also subsided. But regular deployments will still happen, and military families will continue to move frequently. Veteran families will still have to deal with the physical and emotional traumas of war, even from out of the shadow of war.
My father was a Naval Reserve officer, so I thought I knew about the difficulties that modern military child face. But I was fortunate to grow up when his most exotic deployments were to San Francisco and Hawaii, far from the combat that has raged for the last ten years. MCEC has made me realize that a whole generation of potential leaders is at stake, and we have to act right now to ensure their development goes as smooth as possible. Our military children have already endured much, and for that reason they are prepared to succeed in the future. They just need the tools and resources to succeed.