To say that living the military life can be challenging would be huge understatement. My husband and I just celebrated our 24th anniversary, in our 14th address. We have three boys, two with disabilities. Our oldest son will be a senior in high school this year, spending the year in his 12th school. Our life is a perfect study of constant change, and overcoming hurdles great and small.
Two of our three sons are deaf with cochlear implants, and the youngest son has additional challenges. I can’t even begin to count how many meetings I’ve attended at different schools, with the goal of setting educational plans for the boys. A new posting means new doctors, too, starting with a good primary care physician who knows how to write referrals. On top of that, we must plan special meetings to enroll the boys in Child Youth Services programs on post, too. More piles of pretty paperwork to add to already crammed full file cabinets at home.
We are a military family with special needs children, and qualify for the Army’s Exceptional Family Military Program. Oh, yes, this means even more paperwork for everyone involved.
To communicate with my deaf children, we’ve had to learn a new language. To communicate with the doctors, we’ve learned many new medical terms. Working with our son’s educational teams, I’ve had to learn all about lesson plans, different testing norms and special education laws in eight different states. I’ve had to advocate for my sons’ individual educational needs and goals with hundreds of different teachers, therapists and administrators.
Through all of this I’ve grown very, very tired, and interestingly enough, stronger. I used to be afraid and felt unprepared to talk with school staff at meetings. Now I go in prepared and armed with reams of regulations and rules that I know they should be following. I actually insisted that one school official write into the meeting notes which law they were currently violating with my son’s educational plan.
Would I blame stress on the military? No. If we hadn’t moved around, we wouldn’t have crossed paths with one of the top cochlear implant surgeons in the states. I wouldn’t have met other amazing parents who share stories, resources and ways they cope with their special needs family members.
I get sad when I hear about parents who refuse to register their special needs children with the Army’s Exceptional Family Member Program. Using the program properly has ensured that the Army only moves us to duty stations that can offer my special needs family members the proper educational and medical resources. This might limit our duty station options at times, but the bigger picture is more important to me — that my entire family has good support wherever we are stationed.
For the most part, the medical and educational personnel with whom we’ve worked have been wonderful. Every once in a while I come across personnel who seem to lose all of my children’s paperwork, or don’t read my son’s educational program. Last year, my son was in class for weeks before I met his teachers, most of whom hadn’t even realized that he’s deaf. I have to stay on my toes, keep multiple paper and digital copies of all records, and a list of contacts who can help us out when needed. I have to learn the law of the land each time we move to a new school district, and make sure that my children are getting a free and appropriate public education.
With all of this in mind, I have to remember to slow down sometimes, breathe deeply and take care of myself. I find strength in friends who have gone through similar struggles. As a friend once told me, “You must take care of the caregiver, too.”
As a military spouse and mother of three boys, whether my soldier is home or deployed, I must remember to take care of myself or I won’t be able to take care of anyone else.
Living this military life isn’t easy at all. Coping with constantly moving our children year after year adds to our stress. Throw in my sons’ individual special needs, and there are times I feel so overloaded that it’s difficult to think straight. Life as an Army wife can be tough, but I’ve also allowed it to make me stronger.
If you know someone who might be facing similar struggles, take a moment to think of how you can show them support and help them through their day. Just a warm smile or a friend’s listening ear have helped me get through some pretty tough times. You could be that source of strength for someone else, too.
Karin Markert, an Army spouse who lives at Fort Hood, is a freelance photographer and Herald correspondent.