How I explained to my son why Daddy is in a war zone

Oct 14, 2013 at 12:00 p.m. ET

Military deployments are never easy on families. Not only do military kids miss their parents who are deployed — they also worry a lot about them.

Mom comforting her son during deployment

It's up to the spouse back at home to help ease those fears, but also still be honest about the risks associated with being in the military.

I remember the day my husband deployed for what would be a 15-month deployment to Baghdad, Iraq. My son — like a lot of little boys — was close to his father, but he was only 3 years old at the time. And while Daddy’s absence was noticeable to him, he seemed to be OK — only inquiring with the occasional "When is Daddy coming home?" or "I miss Daddy."

Three years later, we had moved to Hawaii and my son was now in the 2nd grade on a military base. He would ask me if his father was going to deploy and each time I would answer, “Not anytime soon." But then, in May 2007, my husband was sent on another deployment. We drove Daddy to the hangar, spent a little time together and then said our what I called "temporary goodbyes."

Tough questions

For the first month everything seemed to be OK and my kids were adjusting to their father being deployed... or so I thought. One afternoon, my daughter came downstairs to inform me that my son was in his room crying. I, of course, ran upstairs with the typical thoughts that he had hurt himself or had been fighting with his sister (as usual) and maybe she had hit him too hard.

After seeing that he wasn't hurt, I asked him what was wrong. I had no idea that he would give me this response — “I told the kids that my daddy worked on a helicopter and they said it could crash if he is in the war. Is Daddy going to crash and die 'cause I don’t want him to?"

I was taken aback and mad at the same time. I knew they were just kids but the protective mother bear in me wanted to protect my small, innocent little boy from hearing something so horrible. The realistic mother in me knew these children were no more than 8 years old — and military brats themselves. This was the way of military life, but even so I still had to comfort my son, who should never have to think he would lose his dad in such a tragic way.

Difficult answers

I hugged my son and then began to explain to him in depth what his dad actually did in those helicopters. I told him that Daddy very rarely had to fly in them because he only fixes them. I then began to assure him that the people who fly those helicopters have been trained for years — and if Daddy had to fly in them he would be safe and well taken care of. I thought this would reassure him, but then not surprisingly (but way too soon) came the questions about whether his dad would get shot or not. Apparently he had been hearing a lot of chatter from kids whose fathers were infantryman. These fathers talked very openly around their children about things they had seen or done in their line of work.

I knew I couldn't pacify my son any longer with, “Everything is going to be OK" answers. He needed to know the truth in a kid-friendly way. I thought about how to phrase what I wanted to say to him for a few moments and in a calm tone said, "Matt, your dad and many of the parents of the kids in your class are very brave people and have very important jobs. There are bad people who want to hurt us and others, and your dad and your friends' parents have to protect us by going to where the bad people are. Sometimes the bad people do try to hurt the soldiers, but that very rarely happens because your dad and all the service members are trained very well for what they do."

Of course, deep down I knew that troops are certainly wounded and sometimes even killed in action. As a mother I knew I gave the most truthful answer I could that would hopefully put my 8-year-old's mind at ease.

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