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Military Stories Told Through Play

Military Stories Told Through Play
Caregiver Blog

Military Stories Told Through Play…the Heart of a Child

By: Lorie A. Hanna

  Years ago, I found one of our daughters setting up a scene with her miniature stuffed animal pig. I asked her what she was preparing for and she informed me that, “Piggie,” was due to have a piglet mid-September. 

In fact, she was due the same day as my daughter’s birthday. She then told me that Piggie’s husband, Major Pig, was deployed to Iraq and wasn’t going to make it home for the birth. 

I listened carefully as she provided more details to this major life experience. It sounded very familiar. This wasn’t simply the story of Piggie…it was our story, too. 

In response, that year on my daughter’s birthday, we set up a special place at the dining room table for Piggie. Our daughter’s smile was priceless when she was gifted a small stuffed animal. It was Major Pig, and he made it home in time for the birth of their piglet. 

When our daughter was born, my husband was deployed to Iraq as a Blackhawk pilot. My husband had made arrangements to be on the phone with me for her birth, but she arrived a little earlier than expected. 

She was placed in the special care unit for her first four days of life, cuddled up in what I called, “her rocket-ship,” and then safely returned home to my parent’s house. There, she met her 23 month-old big sister and her one-year old brother, who now shared her birthday. 

Reminiscing through old photos and sharing stories about that season of our life is therapeutic for me, but I failed to realize that as my daughter got older, she would have to make sense of it herself. 

As a child, she did that through play, as did all five of our children during the early years of my husband’s military career. 

I often found Barbie married to a G.I. Joe-type figurine (he was usually preparing for a mission,) and the Dinoco helicopter made frequent stops  to the dollhouses throughout our home. Wearing Army boots, a pilot vest, and plastic Kevlar to the table for a snack was as common as dressing up in princess shoes and crowns.  

Nighttime routines included photos of Daddy brushing his teeth and saying his prayers, and the Daddy doll made his appearance at preschool graduations, holidays, birthdays, and typically accompanied us to doctor appointments. 

Our daughters made “families” out of toys, blocks, blankets, and stuffed animals. My husband was often greeted after work by his daughters who gave him a one-armed hug because their other arm was usually cradling a baby doll. Family was everything to them. 

Our son often quoted the movie, Toy Story, “…never leave a soldier behind,” when we trekked up the stairs for bath-time or when I loaded up the car with all five children. 

All the kids knew  they shouldn’t complain about being hot or carrying too much because I would often reply, “Your Daddy is wearing a rucksack and a long-sleeved uniform in

100 degree weather. You can carry a diaper bag to the air-conditioned car.” They had to be tough, tough little soldiers doing their best to complete the day’s mission.

Life in the military is up-tempo, and there is never too much time to reflect on the effects of continual transition and adjustment. It takes years to digest the experiences and stories. 

Looking back, I laugh when I remember telling our 3 ½ -year-old to hydrate and drink water while we were outside at the pool. She replied, “Hydrate or die,” spoken like a true soldier’s child. 

I have pictures of our oldest daughter who put on a fashion show, wearing none other than her Daddy’s brown, Army-issued t-shirt, complete with a belt and looking fabulous in her new nightgown  on the first night of his departure to Fort Hood, Texas.

The kids took turns wearing pilot uniforms and headsets, creating airplanes and helicopter trips in laundry baskets, and packing up their most prized possessions into suitcases or bags. They played this game time and again , as cardboard boxes often lined our home in preparation for the next move. It was their way of processing the changes and becoming comfortable with the expectations that we set for them. 

As the children got older, their coping strategies through play shifted. Prompted journal entries and drawings revealed the joy they experienced when we were together as a family, and their fears and concerns were noticeable through their honest responses.

I sometimes find poems or lyrics to a song they wrote lying around and take a moment to acknowledge the hardships they internalize.

Like many other military families, we have moved over  10 times within  15 years, endured two combat deployments, said goodbye to our soldier more times than we can count for trainings, missions, state active duty, natural disaster relief and fire support, but we lack the accessibility or continual fellowship of other military families. 

We are a Texas Army Aviation National Guard family embedded in civilian communities, and we are always in search of finding others who understand our journey, sacrifice, loyalty to our nation, and faith that sustains us through it all.

Our children are now 15, 14, 13, 11, and 10 years old. They still seek out friendships, but keep their hearts protected knowing that relocating is always a possibility. They appreciate time with their Dad because they realize  in a day’s notice, he may be called to serve and support a mission without a clear return date.

When prompted in school to write about a significant event or challenge, it typically involves some aspect of being a military child, a perspective that belongs only to them. 

Over the years, I have made photo books and memory boxes for each child. When transition enters into  our lives  unexpectedly, I find them rummaging through their boxes, revisiting the memories to help manage their emotions and piece their life together to help make sense of it all. 

Soldiers serve a significant role in preserving and protecting freedom, but our children also serve an important role in helping the civilian community realize that behind every soldier, is a support system whose   sacrifices sustain the mission of their loved ones . 

The story of a military child may not be understood by words on paper or in voice, but through their play, through their perseverance on the field, through their grit to achieve, and through the expression of their creativity and talents. 

Organizations like Hidden Heroes and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation help to embrace, recognize, and encourage our children to find their voice and seek healthy ways to strive toward excellence; even during times of separation from their soldier or transition into a new community. 

During this season of life, my greatest inspirations are the stories, experiences, emotions, and resilience displayed from the five heroes that we are blessed to call our children. 

They helped me create, “Social Skills with Simon,” a YouTube channel focused on social and emotional learning through positive role-modeling, repetition, and play. Our children  demonstrate the importance of developing age-appropriate coping strategies to manage and process their emotions and behaviors, creatively and positively.

As a parent, I am thankful for the organizations, resources, and support that continues to encourage and motivate our young heroes to find and share their voices.