Five-year-old Hunter Johnson colors the pictures on the page to show which things he can do with his dad. Then he circles all the things he still can do after his dad deploys. It’s just one of the activities in his deployment activity book that helps him better understand his dad’s military deployment and its effect on his own daily life.
Hunter received the book at a Yellow Ribbon Program (YRP) pre-deployment briefing he attended with his family. Since the inception of the program in 2008, books have been a vital part of supporting military families before, during, and after deployment. Resources used in this Department of Defense initiative cover a wide range of topics, including marriage enrichment, financial management, family benefits, leadership strategies, communication techniques, and spiritual wellness.
At Air Force Reserve Command Yellow Ribbon events, airmen and their family members can pick and choose the informational sessions most useful to them and when they leave, they take with them books about those topics. “Everything they need, they can get in books,” says Senior Master Sergeant Jackie Zawada, the Yellow Ribbon Program Regional Event Manager for AFRC. “Support has to continue past the event, and the only way we can do that is through books.”
Children also attend the two-day event. When they arrive, the young kids carry with them confusion and anxiety. When they leave, they have a better understanding of how many others share their challenges, and, like their parents, they carry with them a book to help them through the deployment.
Nothing feels quite as comforting as being handed a fun activity book created just for them. The book Hunter received was My Dad’s Deployment: A deployment and reunion activity book for young children. Children who had a mom deploying received My Mom’s Deployment, the mom version of the 112-page activity book.
Marine wife Julie LaBelle wrote the activities for the books. Tapping into her experiences as a military wife, preschool teacher, and mother of three children who struggled with their father’s deployment, Julie created the books to help facilitate communication between parents and young children and to help children better understand their situation.
“I wish there had been books like this when my kids were little,” Julie says. While her husband was deployed, she watched her children freeze up on the phone when they had precious minutes to talk with their dad. She realized they could have practiced the calls and they would have been more prepared to better connect with him on the phone.
Julie wanted something that would help military families with those daily challenges of deployment. Through guided exercises, the activity books encourage regular connection between the parent at home and the child during deployment and foster communication between the child and service member before and after the deployment.
“There is learning on both ends…for the parent and the child, and then they share with the deploying parent before they leave and when they return,” Julie says. The fun activities in the book, such as deployment-related mazes, matching, coloring, and crafts, give young children a safe way to ask questions, talk about feelings, and feel connected to their parents.
“Books open up the communication with kids,” Zawada says. “If kids have trouble communicating with words, they can draw or color pictures to share how they’re feeling. The books offer a way to communicate with mom and dad. They can put their own colors, pictures, and words in them.”
“Everything we do is around communication,” Zawada adds. Supporting the whole family helps the service member, too. She explains that spouses and family members of the deployed are often the best support system for returning personnel. There are times the service member thinks everyone else has changed and may not recognize they need additional support for themselves. The education and support provided to the spouses and families can be the difference in making sure service members get the help they need. Since the YPR began handing out informational resources and books, the suicide rate for the AFRC has dropped.“It’s not just about suicide rates, but it is a good indication that we are giving the airmen the support they need,” Zawada says. “If there are issues with an airman, sometimes they don’t see it in themselves.”
Implementation of Yellow Ribbon Programs varies slightly within each branch of service, as well as from state to state, but the intent is the same. Families and service members are offered support and resources to help them from preparing for deployment through three months into reunion.
By including the youngest members of the families, the depth of support increases. For families with children, the stressors of deployment can be significantly complicated. More than two million American children have experienced a parent’s deployment, 78% of them under age 11 (National Military Family Association, 2010). For much of the history of the military, the focus has been on the preparation and resources available to service members, but the needs of the family members, and specifically the children, were not being met.
Dean Peloquin, head of the Yellow Ribbon Family Program for the 88th regional support command at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin explains, “This is the only program to actually include the children.”
Books such as the deployment activity books are provided at no cost to children who attend the program.
“The children really enjoy getting the books,” Peloquin says, “They are wonderful tools, and the kids get to take them home with them and go through them on their own time.” And for kids like Hunter, that can make all the difference.
Feature photo: Author Julie LaBelle signs copies of her activity books for kindergarten students at Mary Fay Pendleton School.
A majority of the Yellow Ribbon Programs are coordinated through Joint Services Support: www.JointServicesSupport.org/YRRP
Some are modeled after programs like the Minnesota National Guard’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program: www.BeyondTheYellowRibbon.org/
The Air Force Reserve Command operates its own Yellow Ribbon Program: http://www.afrc.af.mil/AboutUs/YellowRibbon.aspx
The activity books mentioned in this article are also available through your favorite online and retail bookstores.
Buy My Dad’s Deployment: A deployment and reunion activity book for young children
Buy My Mom’s Deployment: A deployment and reunion activity book for young children