Class acts of support
Fort Richardson teachers, students cope together when parents deploy
By GEORGE BRYSON
Anchorage Daily News
Published: February 13, 2007
When bad news strikes in Iraq, the shock wave can reverberate all the way to Ursa Major Elementary School -- the larger of two grade schools at Fort Richardson -- where the war manages to touch nearly everyone, students, teachers and parents alike.
About 340 of the 400 children enrolled there have fathers (and a few mothers) who have served in Iraq in the past year, mostly as part of the 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, that deployed from Fort Rich last fall.
Parents left behind usually try to shield their kids from disturbing war news, says school counselor Pam Christianson. But Ursa Major kids are adept at translating the code.
"There doesn't even have to be a tear in your eye for them to know that Mom is really scared," she says. "They can just feel it."
But military kids have worries too, says Fort Richardson adolescent counselor Mark Mortier. Especially the younger ones, and they don't hold things inside the way older students do.
"Their feelings are just right out there," he says. "If they're upset about something, somebody is going to know about it right away."
At Ursa Major, that pretty much describes what happened last fall when about 3,800 members of the 4/25th shipped out, with teachers saying goodbye to spouses, kids saying goodbye to dads.
The send-off had an immediate impact on the school, says Ursa Major PTA president Holli Cherry: "There were at least three kids a day who were just crying."
Kindergarten teacher Starla Watson (whose own husband deployed to Iraq) reminded her students about the "safe place," a pillow-lined corner in her classroom where they could go if they ever felt sad -- and several of them quickly took her up on the offer.
"Each day my 'safe place' had someone in it -- holding a teddy bear, giving someone a hug, taking deep breaths, trying to relax," Watson says.
By comparison, older kids tended to quarrel more with their friends, or get mad at their teachers, as the stress of new routines took their toll, says Christianson, who recently received the school district's "Denali Award" for outstanding service.
So she's been encouraging them to write about their feelings in "Deployment Journals," or participate more actively in one of the many group counseling sessions she provides at school.
Sitting on the floor of her counseling office last Tuesday were 10 students, all from the upper grades. "What's the hardest time of the day when you miss your dad the most?" Christianson asked them.
"Especially at dinner time," said 4th-grader Mackenzie Fox, noting that's when her dad isn't at his place at the table.
"I think about him when I go to bed," said 6th-grader Luriam Agosto. "I pray for him every night."
Third-grader Mikeal Giles, however, said he missed his Dad "all day long."
"Is there anything you've done that makes you feel better?" Christianson asked. "Nope," Mikeal said. "Not even one thing?" she asked. "No," he said.
But other students in the circle quickly chimed in. One thing that made him feel better each day was going to Ursa Major, one boy said. A girl agreed. Her school work and friends help to take her mind off her missing dad.
She hears that a lot, Christianson says. Ursa Major is almost like a big support system, with everyone in the same boat. About 85 percent of the students there have a parent who has been deployed in Iraq, she says. Some have parents who've served in a war zone more than once.
Some of the teachers and staff members at Ursa Major are married to deployed soldiers too -- like Family and School Services coordinator Adele Daniels, who has a husband now serving on his sixth overseas mission (dating back to a 1989 combat mission to Panama). Everyone at the school tries to reassure each other, Daniels says.
"I remember saying to a couple of kids: 'My husband is going with your daddy, and they'll take care of each other.' It sounds a little corny, but it's true. And it made them feel better."
It makes her feel good as well, says Cherry, the PTA president. When her own husband left (on his third deployment) she once again found comfort at Ursa Major, where three of her children attend school.
"Your family immediately transforms, and this becomes your family," she says. "It's her kids and my kids, and we're all a family unit."
Having a parent deployed in Iraq can be an emotional roller coaster for children, says Mortier, who regularly counsels older students attending nearby Gruening Middle School and Eagle River High School. But he's found military kids to be fairly resilient.
"And that's what we see during deployments. We see kids and families drawing upon that resiliency, that ability to bounce back. ... They have some bad days, but then they press on."
Coping with a war has been made a little easier in the past decade with the advent of cell-phone and Internet communications, Ursa Major families say. Some receive e-mail messages from Iraq almost every day.
"There is so much more contact, and that really helps kids," Christianson says. "The scary part is when there is a blackout, and there is no communication. And that's when I'll start seeing kids in my room. And they'll say to me: 'I haven't been able to talk to my dad for three days, and I'm really worried about him.'"
Though it's only been gone four months, the 4th Brigade has already suffered 23 fatalities, nearly as many as the 26 fatalities the Stryker Brigade (which also deployed from Fort Richardson) recorded in 16 months in Iraq. Last month, eight soldiers from the 4th were killed in a single day.
Such terrible news, of course, sets the telephone wires ringing at Fort Richardson. So far, few of the fatalities have involved spouses or parents, but that's small consolation. A death in the unit touches them all.
Not long ago, in her kindergarten's afternoon sharing hour, Watson says, a boy brought up the subject of his father's recent combat injury in Iraq.
"He said, 'My dad was blown up ...' and at first it kind of took me aback," Watson says. "But the other kids didn't seem to be all that affected by it.
"He said he was sorry that it happened. He said: 'I'm helping take care of my dad now.' So the other kids just said: 'OK' -- and patted him on the back."
Thus the roller coaster continues, Mortier says. Right now, some of the 4th Brigade soldiers are returning to Anchorage for two weeks of R&R (an uphill burst of euphoria) followed all too soon by their inevitable second departure (another downhill slide).
Beyond that, everyone has eight more months to go.
Back at the Tuesday talking circle, the students were asked what they planned to do when their dads finally got home to stay. Several of them mentioned going together to an indoor water park in South Anchorage. Others mentioned leaving on trips.
Mikeal Giles, the third-grader, said he planned to play a lot of games with his dad.
Third-grader Adrian Estrada said he and his family were going to "celebrate every holiday he missed."
"That is such a cool idea," said Christianson. "I've had kids say, 'You know what? We're going to have Valentine's on one day and Christmas on another day, then all the birthdays.' "
But fourth-grader Mackenzie Fox may have summed it up best. "We're just going to do everything possible," she said.