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Originally published April 22, 2009 at 3:50 PM | Page modified April 22, 2009 at 4:24 PM

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Guest columnist

First lady Obama's attention can help the military child

First lady Michelle Obama's attention to military families is welcomed by guest columnist Alison Buckholtz, a naval spouse at NAS Whidbey. She writes that Obama's public attention to the lives of military families can make a significant difference in our national — and emotional — security.

Special to The Times

WHEN President Obama first announced the withdrawal plan for American troops in Iraq, I held my breath and hoped.

After returning last summer from a seven-month deployment in the Persian Gulf, my husband, a Navy pilot based at NAS Whidbey Island, is preparing for a 12-month assignment in Baghdad. Since we received these orders, I've been hoping for a miracle. And though President Obama's plan doesn't deliver that miracle for us — my husband is due home in August 2010, the deadline for the withdrawal — those military families who will be reunited soon are on my mind.

Military families have always experienced challenges stemming from long absences from loved ones, but the Iraq war's escalated deployment schedule has ushered in a new reality. However, most military families bear their burdens quietly, without a mainstream, public voice to express their concerns.

That's why I was so intrigued to see Michelle Obama meeting with military spouses at bases around the country last year, and speaking about the depth of her commitment to military families at Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Bragg and other bases recently. Her early discussions with military spouses could establish the cornerstone of a much-needed campaign to represent the dependents of those who serve the nation. By adopting the cause of military families during her tenure as first lady and launching a national conversation about military families, she can help us overcome one of our most pressing challenges: the effect of extended and repeated deployments on children.

As the parents of a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, my husband and I have firsthand knowledge of the difficulties children face during deployments. When my husband deployed last year, our son launched a hunger strike and became so depressed and angry we sought professional help for him. Though laughter eventually returned to his life, my husband and I are carefully considering how to navigate the rough waters ahead.

Repeated and unpredictable deployments have become spouses' biggest gripe with the military, according to one nongovernmental survey of Army spouses. Yet service members' time at home continues to shrink. The most recent Department of Defense data shows that among the 876,000 military parents who have deployed since 9/11, 245,000 have been away twice, 91,000 have been away three times, and 48,000 have been deployed four or more times. These statistics highlight the increasingly grueling deployment cycles endured by today's career military families.

Despite a plan to end the Iraq war, military families will continue to experience long and frequent separations. Even after the projected August 2010 troop withdrawal, a transitional force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq. Families must also contend with the specter of deployments to an increasingly volatile, unstable Afghanistan and other locations touched by the global war on terror.

Some American service members' children stand as uncounted casualties of this long war. Academic studies, such as the peer-reviewed research published late last year in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, conclude that children 5 years old and younger who experience the deployment of a parent exhibit significantly increased aggression and anxiety compared with children without a deployed parent. Military bases need resources specifically geared to children of deployed soldiers, along with professionals who are prepared to address these tiny heroes' unique psychological needs. Yet in our case — and ours is not uncommon — there is no child psychiatrist or child psychologist on base or in town.

Data show that the satisfaction of the military spouse is a primary reason for a service member either staying in or leaving the military. If it's true that a mother is only as happy as her least-happy child, then the health and well-being of the military child is more important than anyone has yet acknowledged. So whether Michelle Obama's goal is to gird our armed forces for continued challenges, or simply to improve the lives of military spouses and children, her public attention to the lives of military families can make a significant difference in our national — and emotional — security.

Alison Buckholtz is a Navy spouse based at NAS Whidbey Island and the author of "Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War" (Tarcher/Penguin).

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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