Isaac McCorkle Jr., 8, wondered why his father could not wrestle or catch him with his arms anymore as years passed after the elder Isaac McCorkle, a first lieutenant in the Marines, came back from a second tour in Iraq.
Morgan McCorkle, the boy’s mother, was not sure how much she could tell him about his father’s injuries, which included traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and a serious spine injury in the neck that resulted after his truck rolled over when the vehicle in front was hit by a roadside bomb in 2005. He has had two surgeries to replace two spine discs in the neck and fuse four vertebrae.
“A lot of it was explaining ‘Daddy hurts. Daddy doesn’t feel good,’ ” said Morgan McCorkle, who lives in San Diego with her family.
The mother of three became a full-time caregiver to her husband for two years. Her oldest, Isaac Jr., took on more responsibilities, and she noticed the child grew serious and reserved.
For many military families faced with the serious injuries of a loved one returning from war, the transition brings upheaval, including shifts in family roles, confusion and exhaustion.
As veterans have returned from the nation’s two longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, families, veterans groups and providers often prioritize addressing the needs of wounded service members. Frequently lost in the immediate turmoil are the needs of their children, according to a new study by the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego.
“They are often overlooked,” said Mary Jo Schumann, the center’s associate director and the study’s lead author. “The focus is on the service member. In cases of seriously wounded service members, because they are in dire need, the children do take a back seat.”
The study found few programs are directly addressing the needs of these children, creating a gap in service for a growing at-risk population.
An estimated 2 million children nationwide have been affected by wartime deployment since Sept. 11, 2001, the study noted.
More than 48,000 children nationwide have a parent who was injured in combat. Of those, 4,235 children have a parent who was at least seriously wounded in action.
California leads the nation with its number of post-9/11 service members with serious injuries.
Factors related to the parent’s injury – including changes in family responsibilities, isolation and a lack of programs addressing children’s needs – are obstacles to the children’s emotional health, which can lead to social and behavioral issues, Schumann said.
“They lose their sense of childhood because they have to grow up faster,” she said.
The study took place over a year and involved interviews with 125 participants, including seriously wounded service members, their spouses and children as well as military, civilian and nonprofit experts who work with these families. The aim was to assess the children’s needs and to determine what services were already available.
Invisible, psychological wounds like PTSD, which some of those studied also experienced, may be more significant for families because of their unpredictable nature, leading to isolation, Schumann said.
But meeting others who share similar problems will help children, Schumann said.
The study also recommends the formation of a consortium of groups already working with post-9/11 veterans’ families to centralize services available to children. About a dozen groups have held an initial meeting and plan to hold quarterly discussions about the findings and how to apply them to their programs, said Margaret Davis, president and CEO of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which commissioned the study. The Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit provides need-based scholarships to the children of Marines and Navy corpsmen.
“No one organization can take this on alone,” Davis said. “We’ve got to strive toward collective impact.”
Some groups stand out in their efforts to provide support and training to families of wounded service members, Schumann said. Among them is the Families OverComing Under Stress program, she said. The program was developed by mental health experts at UCLA about a decade ago. Through eight sessions with a resiliency trainer, the family builds communication skills, tools for processing feelings and goals.
“They’re basically able to make shared meaning out of their adverse experiences,” said Catherine Mogil, co-developer of the FOCUS program and director of training and intervention development at UCLA’s Nathanson Family Resilience Center. “They’re able to say, ‘What is the silver lining?’ ”
Maintaining a routine, like a time frame for dinner, and being honest, but developmentally appropriate, about a parent’s wounds help children understand and adapt, Mogil said.
Families also learn about emotional regulation by using a feeling thermometer to express themselves. For instance, the red zone represents anger and frustration.
“Communication in the red zone does not work,” Mogil said. “We’re not using our rational, thoughtful mind. We make bad choices. We’re not careful of our words. We don’t honor other people.”
Parents and children learn to calm down when they’re in the red zone, whether by taking a nap, calling a friend or reading a book.
Among the positive consequences of growing up with a seriously wounded parent is that the child is more prone to develop flexibility, self-sufficiency and empathy for those who are different from them, Schumann said.
Over time, members of the McCorkle family, who took part both in the study and the FOCUS program, have learned how to monitor their emotions, talk about feelings and know when to help.
They began a ritual every night at dinner, when each member of the family, including Danica, 5, and Allen, 2, names their favorite part of the day, something they are thankful for and what they are hopeful about for the future.
Morgan McCorkle, 32, has noticed encouraging changes in her oldest child, including seeking out opportunities to be with other children and a more carefree spirit.
“Now he can relax and be a goofy 8-year-old little boy,” she said.
Isaac Sr., 34, is retiring from the Marines to become a full-time “chief domestic engineer” with the children, his wife said. There are still “rough patches,” but maintaining communication and a sense of humor keep them balanced, she said.
“No matter how bad your day is, there’s always something to look forward to,” Morgan McCorkle said.