There is one standing order that I’ve given my children with which they have never argued. When we see a woman or man in uniform, we go up to them and thank them for their service to our country. No exceptions. A few years ago Adam and I had a stark and unforgettable encounter with a veteran. We were out for lunch when we saw a young man in a wheelchair pull up to the table across from us. There was something about his demeanor that made me think this young man wasn’t in a wheelchair because he was reckless. And then I saw the Semper Fi sticker on the back of his chair.
“This man is a Marine,” I said to Adam.
My son didn’t have to be told what came next. He knew I’d learned it from my own father, a World War II veteran. Adam accompanied me to the man’s table. “I used to be a Marine,” the man said softly. We told him once a Marine, always a Marine. Adam shook the man’s hand and said, “Thank you for your service.”
“Any time, buddy,” said the Marine. “Any time.” His mother had tears in her eyes.
My children and I don’t know anyone personally whose sibling or parent is serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the more urgent for my kids to acknowledge a soldier. All the more urgent for them to seek out information in articles and books that will help them understand what families in our country sacrifice when a loved one in the Armed Forces is in harm’s way.
Novelist and playwright Laura Harrington published a novel in the past year that should be mandatory reading for parents and teens alike. It’s easy to remember the title, Alice Bliss. And it’s impossible to forget the eponymous protagonist. Alice is 15 and the older of two daughters. You see the deep father-daughter bond Matt and Alice share – a bond that’s already there when she’s a younger girl helping her father shingle a roof, trusting him as he coaches her through a bout of vertigo.
Matt, a National Guard reservist, signs on to fight in Iraq because he believes it’s the right thing to do. His patriotism is unquestionable, but there’s also a bit of the adventurer in his decision to ship out. Alice knows this about her dad in the same way that she knows that he can fix anything in the world.
When you read this quiet, contemplative novel, be prepared to be both enlightened and moved to tears. The book further piqued my curiosity about children with a parent deployed in a war zone. During the decade-long fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military has spent millions of dollars to train hundreds of American school counselors and psychologists to help children cope with the fear, confusion and the unthinkable. What if a parent returns with a physical injury? What if he or she needs psychological help? Or what happens if a parent doesn’t return at all?
As I surfed the Internet for information about kids with deployed parents, I imagined Alice Bliss doing the same thing in the bedroom she shared with her little sister. Skipping from link to link, I thought of my father refusing to answer a factual question. “Look it up,” he’d always reply. If I had been around when he served in World War II, how would I have borne his absence?
I eventually landed on a recent article in The New York Times that reported on the accommodations public schools near bases make for military families. If only fictional, Alice had been so lucky. Harrington is so good at capturing Alice’s isolation in her upstate New York community. She inhabits her character’s adolescent soul. When Alice is running off her fear and anxiety in a cross-country meet, we’re also short of breath and bumping up against hopelessness. Reading “Alice Bliss” is a visceral experience.
According to the Times, the public schools near Camp Lejeune, a military base in North Carolina, coordinate support services through the Marines with programs like the While You Wait Club. It’s a crowded club. Some 15,000 children in the area, including those of reservists, meet to talk, to journal, to draw – to do just about anything to make the waiting bearable. With a little luck and vigilance, counselors and teachers may catch a spiraling depression or notice mounting anxiety. According to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, pediatric behavioral disorders steadily increase while a parent is deployed.
Maybe the study states the obvious, but the courageous Alice Bliss and her creator demonstrate that the obvious quickly becomes complex. Alice is a great character – an all-American girl that a military teen needs in her corner. She’s everyone’s daughter. And the Marine Adam and I greeted at lunch is everyone’s son