April is the Month of the Military Child, set aside to celebrate military children and to recognize the challenges they face in their own lives as part of their parents’ service. We are two retired Marines who’ve been friends for 27 years, and fathers whose kids grew up together.
By writing this, we can help you explain the upside of life as a military child, when a well-meaning outsider asks you, “Isn’t being in uniform hard on your children?” We want to celebrate the good things that come from growing up within the military — despite multiple moves and the stress of parents being absent, and sometimes deployed — including the strength, independence and resilience we’ve seen grow in our own children.
And if you’re just starting your family, in the early years of your service, and wondering if the sacrifice of time away will hurt your kids, we’d like to share with you the gifts you are giving them: lifetime membership in a close-knit community that welcomes newcomers and makes them feel at home, in an era when many Americans don’t know their neighbors. It also nurtures in them a lifetime allegiance to something larger than themselves, and an up-close example from their parents of how to live their ideals.
Between the two of us, we have seven wonderful kids who have moved at least a dozen times, changed schools more than 30 times, and parted ways with too many friends to count. Yet the military lifestyle helped them grow into confident, accomplished young adults because of their experiences, not in spite of them.
Deployments were the most challenging, more for them than us. We had our mission to keep our focus.
For them, imagining what we were experiencing and “not knowing” often became a negative distraction. Collectively, the two of us spent roughly 2,000 nights apart from them — nights when we didn’t eat dinner with them, hear about their days or tuck them into bed.
We missed their soccer games, teacher conferences, sad and happy moments, proud accomplishments, as well as important milestones and events in their lives. We were absent for birthdays, special occasions, Mother’s and Father’s Days, holy days and holidays. Our kids laughed without us and cried without us. Some years they even grew up physically and emotionally — without us.
Yet they somehow found refuge with each other and the military community surrounding them. Unfortunately, the community outside the gates didn’t really understand what they were going through.
On a rare occasion when Paul picked his daughter Marissa up from school, her friends remarked, “we didn’t even think you had a dad. Why is he gone so much?”
Writing about these experiences isn’t always easy, because it evokes raw emotions and conjures up painful memories. Especially when it comes to our kids, and what they experienced, too. It is difficult to personally convey their courage and selfless sacrifice in the face of adversity to anyone outside of our own immediate families.
We don’t share this with you to elicit sympathy or pity. Quite the contrary — in a lot of ways our children — Marissa, Luke, Karl, Nick, Joey, Jack, and Sam — are better human beings as a result of the challenges they faced as military kids.
Yes, thousands of children of deployed troops are without their mother or father right now, but when military families move and start over, they have other military families to lean on for support — the kind of support system few Americans have in any part of the country. When someone asks, “why is your mom, or dad, gone so much?” we encourage you to tell them: defending our country, but don’t worry. We’ve got lots of extended family — our military community — keeping watch for us back home.
Paul Cucinotta and Kevin Schmiegel are retired Marine colonels who have 47 years of service between them. They previously led three national military and veteran nonprofits and recently co-founded a social impact company called ZeroMils.
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