By Rachel M. Anderson, Freelance Writer
(Duluth, Minn.) - Less than a decade ago the children of American servicemen and women in the National Guard and Reserve Units didn't have a care in the world. Every so often Mom or Dad or a close family member would head out of town on a training mission, but there was nothing to worry about. Their loved one was close to home.
Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began in late 2001 and early 2003 respectively, however, thousands of children have had to say goodbye to a loved one who had become "suddenly military" for an extended period of time. These days, most overseas deployments end up lasting a year or more.
"No matter how well prepared you think you are for a deployment it's going to be hard on the families, especially the children," says Mary Linda Sather, a long-time educator from Duluth, Minn. Her son, Senior Master Sergeant Ron S. Waterhouse, a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing, based in Duluth, Minn., has been deployed to Iraq three times since the war began.
The separation is hard on all three of Ron's daughters, but especially the youngest, Shea Leigh, who is now 15. "When my Dad is away, I feel lonely, sad and angry all at the same time. I don't think it's fair that he has to keep going over there," she says.
According to the Department of Defense, America has just over one million personnel in its seven reserve units: the Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and Coast Guard Reserve. Almost half of them (49 %) are married and more than one third (41.9 % ) have children.
The Military Family Association, a group that advocates for improvement in the quality of military family life, offers several resources for the children of deployed servicemen and women, including access to Operation Purple Camp. In 2009, the free summer camp which aims to help military kids experience carefree fun while also learning coping skills to deal with deployment-related stress, will be offered in 62 locations in 37 states and territories. Information about the camp and other programs available for children can be found on the website: www.nmfa.org.
Shea Leigh's family didn't take advantage of any of those resources. Instead, her mother, sisters and extended family did all they could to keep her busy while her Dad was overseas; but it was ultimately something she did on her own that made her feel better.
In Mar. 2007, about a month after her father left on his second deployment to Iraq, Shea Leigh packed her teddy bear in a care package being sent to her father. SMSgt. Waterhouse was very touched when he opened the box. "I remember feeling really proud and excited. I know how much Boo Boo Bear means to Shea. It was quite a gesture on her part to send him."
Shea Leigh's father wasn't the only one who was impressed. So was her grandmother. "When Ron told me what Shea had done I was so deeply touched I knew I had to turn the experience into a story with a reassuring, happy ending that could be shared with other military families," says the retired teacher from Duluth, Minn. Mary Linda Sather's first children's book, Boo Boo Bear's Mission (Beaver's Pond Press, June 2009, $17.95, www.boo-boo-bears-mission.net), just rolled off the presses June 11, 2009.
The real-life story begins as Shea Leigh's father is getting ready to leave for his second deployment and the little girl turns to her scraggly old teddy bear for comfort. Then one day, a little more than a month later, Shea Leigh's mother announces it's time to send a care package to Dad and asks what she would like to include. Thinking her father may be lonely she decides to send her teddy bear, Boo Boo, to keep him company.
During his "tour-of-duty," Boo Boo Bear wandered the base daily and even got to go on a full-fledged mission which is detailed in the book. "Having Boo Boo with me really helped the time pass faster," says SMSgt. Waterhouse. Before they knew it, both heroes were back home safely.
Sather points out that Boo Boo Bear's Mission isn't just a great story about courage. "I also intended for it to be a resource parents and caregivers can use to help support a child's emotional well-being as he or she deals with the stress of a family member's military deployment," she says.
Among the resources found in the back of the book:
1. Advice on how to begin and keep going discussions about a child's feelings.
2. Strategies for helping the child cope with separation.
3. Activities those left behind can do together to stay connected with their deployed loved one, such as journaling.
4. Contact information for military family support groups.
Catharine Larsen, M.A., a licensed psychologist from Duluth, Minn., who has worked with many hurting and grieving children over the years says, "I know that anything that helps these children to open up and express what thoughts and feelings are inside them is healing. This beautiful and heartfelt book will help them do that."
"This is absolutely the best kids' deployment book I've ever read. It identifies and validates the emotions of so many children in the Air National Guard families. Helping our nation's smallest heroes understand the depth of their feelings isn't an easy task. Boo Boo Bear's Mission is a wonderful tool that can give children words to express those feelings," adds Jennifer Kuhlman, Family Programs Coordinator for the Minnesota Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing.
Boo Boo Bear's Mission published by Beaver's Pond Press retails for $17.95 and is available for purchase at local bookstores, through boo-boo-bears-mission.net and through Amazon.com.