How military families cope when parents come home injuredby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
Freeport, Minn. — The Department of Defense says more than 40 percent of deployed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are parents. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics shows the longer parents are deployed, the more likely it is their children will have difficulties at school and at home.
It's especially traumatic when children welcome home a parent with injuries.
On June 14, 2005, an improvised explosive device hit the convoy of Sgt. Mike Mills while he was serving in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard's 434th Main Support Battalion. He sustained third degree and deep tissue burns over nearly one-third of his body, along with several physical injuries.
His daughter Kenzie, 14, says her memories of getting the news are still raw.
"I didn't know what to do. We were at my grandparents' house ... they have a swing on the front porch, so I was swinging, because I didn't know what to think. I was scared. I was worried. I was angry," Kenzie recalled.
Mills' son Aaron, 19, worried about whether his dad would even make it to the hospital.
"Our whole world stopped. We didn't know if he was going to come back alive or if he was going to come back in a body bag," said Aaron. "I actually locked myself in the vehicle because I didn't want to talk to nobody."
Aaron and Kenzie say their mother tried to prepare them for the severity of their dad's injuries, but those injuries were worse than they imagined. Mills was treated at Brooks Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
"He didn't look like the same dad, but I knew he was the same dad on the inside," said Kenzie.
"When I first saw him, I was like, 'That's not my dad. That can't be my dad," added Aaron. "He was missing part of his nose, he was missing part of his ear, he was missing part of his eyelid. His hands were all bandaged up.
"My mom told me that he was missing his thumb and his pinky on his left hand, and his right hand was just a little bit burned from taking off his body armor."
Mike Mills says his greatest fear was how his family would feel about these visible changes.
"I guess my biggest worry was, after I realized I was burned, how I would look and would my kids still want to be around me just because I look different," said Mike Mills. "Why would my kids want to be seen with a monster? And that's the way I perceived myself, after I was injured, was a monster."
Aaron and Kenzie Mills say they never saw their dad as a monster. They say their dad still had his same personality despite his physical injuries. They had to wait three months to see him while he recovered at the hospital, and by that time, Mike Mills had already begun to overcome his initial feelings of blame and low self-esteem.
His wife, Suki, played a key role in keeping her husband and children from dwelling on the negatives.
"He didn't stay on that left road for very long, let me tell you. I wouldn't let him. There's no way. No. I love him too much," said Suki.
Suki asked her husband's doctor to connect him with a mental health care provider so he could get help.
Both Mike and Suki have adopted strong communication skills and a positive attitude, and that's trickled down to their children.
Aaron says his family has a new perspective on what's important in life. He says they don't sweat the small stuff anymore. And his sister Kenzie says although she's had to grow up faster than most kids, she makes the best of these experiences.
For example, she had to learn how to change her dad's bandages and care for his wounds at a very young age.
"I felt like nobody else [my age] had to do that," said Kenzie. "I did feel kind of special having to do that, because I want to go into the medical profession, so I felt like I was learning something that I didn't have to learn until years down the road."
These moments also helped Kenzie bond closely with her dad. But it hasn't always been easy for her. She's struggled with anxiety and depression, and she began to withdraw from her classmates at school. She's now enrolled in an online high school program.
Mike Mathies, a licensed clinical social worker for the St. Cloud Veterans Administration Medical Center, says a recent study found older military children show more symptoms of stress in school and social relationships.
"It's very hard for them a lot of times in school to focus, when they have these other things going on, and especially when they feel more isolated and misunderstood," said Mathies. "The other thing we have to remember is children often times have not yet developed the tools we have to communicate about the stress, and manage the stress the way we do."
Military families such as the Mills can find it especially challenging to live in a rural area where it's harder to connect with resources. The Department of Defense says about two-thirds of military families live outside military bases.
Mathies says that's why the St. Cloud VA redirects familes to other resources in the area, including a state-funded program called CORE that allows Lutheran Social Services to provide clinical therapy and financial services to military families.
"As the VA, we can't often provide clinical services to the children, so they [Lutheran Social Services] are learning a lot more about veterans and their children and can be a great resource," said Mathies. "There are several of those organizations spread throughout the state."
The Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program, which checks in with soldiers 30, 60, and 90 days after they return home, also has 11 family assistance centers across the state to assist military families.
While Mike Mills has struggled to recover from his injuries, he and his family celebrate the fact that he's alive. Since his accident nearly five years ago, Mills has had more than 30 surgeries to treat his injuries. He anticipates his last surgery will take place next week.