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For Military Kids, Massachusetts Can Be A Lonely Place04:42
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Alexis, Jaime, Robin and Michaela Brown (Courtesy of the Brown family)
Alexis, Jaime, Robin and Michaela Brown (Courtesy of the Brown family)

Memorial Day seems a fitting time to note that more than 13,000 children in Massachusetts have a parent in the military.

There's not a big military presence in this state, though — no large bases and not a lot of fatigues or "support our troops" signs around — and that can make military kids feel very alone. So several civilian groups in Massachusetts, from schools to pediatricians to summer camps, are trying to beef up the state's support network for the children of service members.

Children like sisters Michaela, Alexis and Jaime Brown, ages 20, 15 and 10.

For most of their lives, their father has been in either the Army or the National Guard. That's meant multiple moves, multiple deployments and lots of missed school events. Michael Brown even missed the birth of his oldest, Michaela, because he was in Iraq for Operation Desert Storm.

"He got a phone call from one of my girlfriend's husbands," recalls Robin Brown, Michael's wife, "and they walked up to him when he was cleaning the tank and they said, 'Hey, you had a girl.' "

Michael picks up the story: "We're pumping salt water out of the Gulf and I'm holding a big fire hose, and what-was-his-name goes, 'Hey, Brown!' I said, 'What?" He shouted, 'You had a girl." And I yelled back: "Cool!"

The family laughs about it now. But for long stretches of time, Robin Brown was basically a single parent.

Mike Brown on deployment (Courtesy of the Brown family)
Mike Brown on deployment (Courtesy of the Brown family)

"With the kids, it was always me taking care of everything," she says. "Taking care of the house, taking care of the bills, cutting the grass, whatever needed to be done. The military didn't care about the family back home. If they wanted you to be married, they'd tell you to your face, 'We would have issued you a wife and she would have been green.' "

At their home in Taunton, the Browns talked freely about what it's like being a military family in Massachusetts.

The five of them seem exceptionally close, maybe because military life has forced them to be. Alexis, the middle daughter, says over the years, whenever her dad was away, she became "the rock," as she puts it, for her mother and sisters.

"My mom would be depressed sometimes," she says. "Like, she would be sad. She would cry a lot. I didn't cry a lot because I knew that he would come back safe, but I had to stay strong for everybody."

All of last year, Michael Brown was away in Iraq, this time for Operation New Dawn. That meant he missed Michaela's high school graduation, which she says made her feel like she didn't really have a graduation. And he couldn't coach Alexis's softball team like he usually does.

Here's how Alexis describes her father's most recent absence: "Like, in your heart you have your mom and dad, and then you have the rest of the people. So that was like a third of my heart gone for a little while."

The absences are tough on Michael Brown, too.

"I can't even imagine when I was 10 or 15 years old and my father be gone for a year," he says. "Dad not coming through the door, having the dinner at the table. I mean, I don't even understand what they go through."

Well, for one thing, it's hard to relate to your classmates when you're the only kid in your school with a parent in the military. Then there's the constant upheaval. Michaela says her family moved so frequently that she sometimes didn't stay put long enough to make friends. But at least when she was growing up near Fort Benning in Georgia and Fort Knox in Kentucky she was surrounded by other military families. It's much different in Massachusetts.

"Growing up as a kid, living on the southern states, being around more military families, it was like normalcy," she says. "And, seeing that, it made me feel proud to be part of that. Up here, you get, 'Oh, I'm so sorry,' and you get the sympathy, but you don't see the support of it. I have yellow ribbons all over my car and everything else. I drive around, I don't see any. Down there, you see every single car has got one."

So a military support group in Boston called Home Base is trying to help create more of a sense of community for local military families. Things like making sure schools know when a student has a parent in the service, training pediatricians to look for signs of anxiety in military kids, and offering more spots for them in summer camps.

"These are kids that we need, I believe, to pay special attention to," says Paula Rauch, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General who's helping with this effort. "So what we would like is for everyone to come to each of their communities with the assumption that there may well be someone in their midst who has a loved family member who is serving now, has served recently, or is about to serve, and support them."

Michaela Brown says there's something else quite simple people can do: "If you do find a child that has a parent who is gone, do whatever you can to distract them from that. Have a sleepover. Go out to movies. Bring them out to ice cream."

Anything, she says, to get their minds off their absent mom or dad.

This program aired on May 30, 2011.

Sacha Pfeiffer Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.

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