One little girl could barely talk. Another boy was too shy to speak. A preschooler wanted to play hide and seek rather than answer my questions. These were the kids I’d chosen to write about, and reporting their stories would require a lot more than a reliance on their words. Much of my narrative would come from talking to relatives, teachers, parents. My reporting would focus on observing the children in their homes, seeing their artwork, visiting with them in their bedrooms, and having them show me their treasured possessions.
My assignment for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald this spring was to write about military families who had soldiers deployed in Iraq with the Maine Army National Guard. I learned as I reported this story that there were many kids who were depressed, unable to sleep or eat, who cried every time mom or dad called from Iraq. Young children who demanded: “You come home right now, Daddy!” Many of these children were receiving counseling from private or National Guard-sponsored agencies.
“A lot of these kids are having problems,” a National Guard spokesman said. “If they’re four or five, they don’t understand why mommy or daddy isn’t coming home. If they’re 8, 10, or 11, they can be mad and have trouble expressing themselves.”
Yet as I set out to tell this story, I soon discovered that the voices of military children were all but invisible. I found few articles on how they were coping with the absence of their parents, who were serving in Iraq. Early on, I sensed that reporting for this series of articles would be a challenge, but I believed that these children’s stories deserved to be heard. The guard spokesman agreed, telling me: “People talk about our soldiers being heroes, but these kids, these families are heroes. They’re making huge sacrifices, too.”
I had done plenty of reporting on children and teenagers and knew that interviewing kids is often unpredictable and called for a lot of creative approaches to reporting. This story was no different. I had to make repeated visits to their homes and search for ways to make them feel comfortable with me and my questions about their sadness and fear.
Children Reveal Their Feelings
During my work on these articles about military families, I met two sisters, Emily and Olivia Wilkinson. Their mom and dad, who both serve in the National Guard, left for Iraq in January. They will be overseas for more than a year. Emily was two, and her older sister, Olivia, was four. I wanted to write about them, but their grandmother discouraged me: “They’re too young,” she said. “Emily can barely talk.”
I found their story was too powerful to abandon. Once their mother approved of it in an e-mail from Iraq, I visited their home. The girls were eating dinner and had little to say to me as I asked about their parents who were far away. Instead, I talked with their aunt and uncle, who were caring for them until their mom and dad returned. From them, I learned that during the first few months of her parent’s absence, two-year-old Emily often asked: “Where’s Mommy? Where’s Daddy?” At times, Olivia told her parents angrily on the phone: “I miss you. You come home right now!” Olivia also had occasional bad dreams about her parents. She said her dreams were too bad for her to want to talk about.
During my two visits to the girls’ home, I brought a video camera to record them. I knew their words and thoughts about their parents would be precious and few. I wanted to be able to play back scenes, capture their expressions, hear their voices. The girls didn’t mind the video camera since their aunt and uncle often videotaped them for their parents.
Instead of talking about her feelings during my first visit, Olivia wanted to play hide and seek with me. I played a quick game and then asked her and Emily to show me their bedrooms. I followed them upstairs, videotaping Emily as she ran down the hallway. She pointed to a map and collage hanging on the wall. A photograph of her mother and father, smiling, their heads tilted together, was taped to the Iraqi map. Above their picture hung a map of Maine. A photo of Emily and her sister Olivia was also taped there. Emily pulled the picture of her parents off the Iraqi map and kissed their faces with a loud smack: “Mommy. Daddy.” Each night she and Olivia take the picture down. “We give them a good-night kiss,” Olivia told me.
I also asked to see the children’s drawings and crafts they’d made for their mother and father. It was when I asked about the girls’ daily rituals that I learned about the “Mommy Tape.” Before going to bed each night, the girls gathered around a tape recorder to listen to their mother sing songs she had recorded before she left for Iraq.
One of the most compelling scenes in the story resulted from watching them listen to the tapes. Teeth brushed, pajamas on, they were lying on their parents’ bed and resting their heads on the small black recorder as their mother’s voice softly sang to them: “Hush little baby don’t say a word. Momma’s going to buy you a mocking bird. If that mocking bird don’t sing, momma’s going to buy you a diamond ring ….” Emily Wilkinson kissed the recorder, “Mommy,” the two-year-old said affectionately, as if her mother walked in the room.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” her mother crooned. “You’ll never know how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” Olivia hummed along with her mother. “I love you Olivia,” Alicia Wilkinson’s recorded voice told her daughters. “I love you Emily.”
The tape ended and the girls kissed the recorder again. Olivia whispered: “Good night Mommy.”
The story about the girls ran on Mother’s Day. It prompted a lot of readers, including the girls’ mother, to cry. But the article also helped readers understand how two little sisters struggled to get by while their parents were far away.
Michael Kelley was older than Olivia and Emily but he, too, wrestled with his sadness and anger. Michael was 11. To his dad, Michael has always been “Bud.” In the winter, they ice-fished. In the summer, they camped and played ball. After his father left for Iraq, Michael cried for two weeks. He cried in the morning, at night, and at school. He called his mom daily from the school nurse’s office. “I have a stomach-ache, I want to come home,” he’d tell her. For two weeks, he couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. He didn’t want to leave his home.
“He was incredibly sad,” his mother, Kim Kelley, remembered. His mother told Michael that his father was working hard in Iraq, building orphanages and schools. “I’m proud of him,” Michael said. “But why does he have to be gone so long?”
A grief counselor explained to me that when a young child’s mother or father is away for 18 months, this time can seem like forever to a kid. The temporary loss may also stir the same emotions that a death in the family brings—grief, anger, sadness, confusion and fear. These children suffered everyday losses. Their dads weren’t there to tuck them into bed at night. Their mothers weren’t there to hug them when they got off the school bus. Their fathers missed Boy Scout ceremonies and father-daughter dances. They missed birthdays, holidays, graduations.
Missing Their Father
When I showed up at Michael’s home to speak with him about his dad, his mother warned me that he was shy. He rarely spoke about his father and how much he missed him. I asked Michael if we could talk in his room. Michael sat on his bottom bunk bed, bending the legs of plastic action figures. His brown eyes peered at me nervously from behind his glasses. I asked him about his two guinea pigs, who scrambled in their cage on top of his bureau. He explained that his mom bought him the pets a few weeks after his dad left, and he quietly told me that his new pets gave him something else to think about besides the many months he’ll be separated from his father.
Michael was silent and staring at his sneakers. I looked around his room and asked him about the army helmet and the desert camouflage uniform that rested on a nearby shelf. Michael gingerly picked up the shirt. “It’s my Dad’s. He gave it to me before he left.” He pulled the shirt over his head. It hung on his thin frame, the sleeves draped over his hands. “I wore it to school yesterday,” he explained, sitting up straight to show the right pocket that read: Kelley. “It’s kinda heavy, but it feels good on,” he said.
When asked how he felt when his dad had to leave, Michael eyed his socks and answered softly: “Nothing really.” He fell silent, touching the cuff of his dad’s uniform before reluctantly admitting: “In the beginning, yeah it was hard. The first few weeks I didn’t get much sleep.”
The interview with Michael lasted less than 30 minutes, and I knew I was going to have to get a lot of background from his mother. I sat with her while Michael played outside. She explained that Michael had buried his emotions about his dad. Once he told her: “I just think about him. I think about the day he is going to come back.” His mother said that during the first few weeks after his dad left, Michael couldn’t e-mail his father because it hurt too much. Instead, he read his dad’s messages that said, “I love you and miss you.” And the one that told him, “I’m proud of you,” congratulating him on becoming a Boy Scout.
Michael looked more serious now, his mother said. Different. At times, he’d ask his mom if he could do his dad’s old chores. He took out the trash, washed the dishes, and asked to do the snow blowing. Eventually he began writing his dad more e-mails and one week used some of his money to buy his father a box of candy, peanuts and gum. Michael drew a picture of himself, a brown-haired boy with glasses, and wrote: “Hello Daddy. I love you.”
While talking to Kim about her son, she explained that her six-year-old daughter had her own difficulties with the temporary loss of her father. Michael’s younger sister, Victoria, didn’t understand that her dad was going to be gone for a year and a half. She thought he’d only be away a short time, like last year when he went away for National Guard training. When three months passed, she too began crying in the morning and at night. For weeks before she went to bed, Victoria asked her mom: “Did you put the house alarm on?”
“She just didn’t feel safe,” her mother said. “I told her that Daddy wouldn’t leave us if he didn’t think we were OK.” One night as her mother tucked her into bed, Victoria asked: “Will Daddy get shot?” Her mother paused. “Daddy is going to take every precaution,” she said. “He’s going to stay safe.”
Victoria nodded and said her prayers: “God Bless Daddy, Michael, and Mommy.”
I learned too that each night a brown stuffed bear sat on the corner of Victoria’s bed. Dressed in a desert camouflage uniform, it watched over the red-haired girl as she slept. Victoria called it “My Daddy Bear.” Christmas morning she and her brother had found two stuffed bears sitting beside the tree. Santa left them. Tucked inside their desert uniform pocket was a note: “Dear Victoria and Michael, whenever you’re sad, hug your bear and your Daddy will feel it. Whenever you miss your Daddy, talk to your bear and your Daddy will hear you.”
Victoria took the bear to school, on car rides, sat him at the dinner table, and held him as she watched Sponge Bob cartoons. Before bed, she hugged the bear, telling him: “Goodnight Daddy. I love you.” Still there were difficult days that even the Daddy Bear could not soften. The night Victoria attended the Girl Scout Father/Daughter Dance was one of them. Her mother curled Victoria’s hair, pulled it up in a ponytail with ringlets that fell to her shoulders. They sprinkled glitter on her cheeks, and she wore a wrist corsage with tiny pink roses.
She headed out the door smiling, holding her uncle’s hand. But once she arrived at the gymnasium, the sight of a roomful of fathers and daughters dancing overwhelmed her. She began to cry hysterically. “It reminds me too much of Daddy,” she told her uncle. “I can’t stay here.” Later, she explained to her mom, “All the girls were with their daddies and I wasn’t with mine.”
The story about Michael and Victoria Kelley was published this past spring, and it also prompted several readers to write the newspaper. Many of them hadn’t considered how the war would tear up families. The articles also helped Michael and Victoria’s friends and teachers understand a bit more about their sadness, the daily losses they faced without their dad. “A lot of people forget about the kids,” their mother said. “They realize there is a war going on and the soldiers are over in Iraq, but they forget about how all this affects the families. These stories helped people see that the war affects all of us, especially the children.”
Barbara Walsh is projects writer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. She has worked for newspapers in Massachusetts, Florida and Maine and has won several national awards. She was part of The (Lawrence) Eagle-Tribune reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize in the General News Reporting category in 1988.