August 2005 // Volume 43 // Number 4 // Commentary // 4COM1

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Extension's Response to an Un-Natural Disaster: Enlisting Your Support for Military Youth and Families

The situation created in families and communities by deployment of active duty, National Guard, and Reserve military service members demands immediate attention. The author shares her experiences as a 4-H Military Liaison and encourages readers to become involved with Operation: Military Kids efforts in their states.

Theresa M. Ferrari
Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio

Life as a 4-H Military Liaison: A New Audience, a New Role, and a New Language

The idea for this article began to take shape on an evening walk, a time when I usually try to clear my head after work. But I couldn't stop thinking about the conversation I had just had with a volunteer who was working on plans for the upcoming MOB Brief (mobilization briefing) for the 558th Squadron of the Army Reserves. There were many details that needed to come together in a relatively short period of time. The FRG (Family Readiness Group) was planning activities for the kids and expected a large number to attend. How could 4-H help?

I didn't need one more thing to do on top of an already-full plate. And I know it is camp and fair season for 4-H'ers. But 205 Army Reserve soldiers would be deploying soon, and that would mean lots of families would become "suddenly military." As the 4-H Military Liaison for Ohio and the Project Director for Operation: Military Kids, these terms have become part of my everyday vocabulary, and participating in these pre-deployment briefings has evolved to become one of my roles. It includes outreach to those youth with a parent in the National Guard and Reserves living throughout the state, those who don't consider themselves to be military families when the service member is mobilized and their lives change in an instant.

Being involved in Operation: Military Kids is one of the most challenging and also most rewarding experiences I've had in my 25-year career in Extension. I also think it's the right thing to do. It has nothing to do with one's political views and everything to do with caring about kids. I know that many of my counterparts in other states feel similarly. But when asked about their challenges, they mention that they would like more time, more staff, and more resources to do the job (Ferrari & Lauxman, 2005). Thus, I feel compelled to write this Commentary to share my experiences so that I might raise awareness about the need and enlist more support for this effort.

Natural and Un-Natural Disasters: Extension Responds

Being involved with the military is not new for 4-H. At the national level, a formal relationship with the Army has existed for 10 years through the USDA/Army Youth Development Project. Since 2002, there are now 4-H military liaisons in each state, and 4-H has a presence on Army and Air Force installations worldwide. This represents a significant level of new resources, as well as redirection of existing ones.

Being involved in a war effort is not new to 4-H'ers, either. In World War II, they grew victory gardens, collected scrap metal, and took on responsibilities of agricultural production (Wessel & Wessel, 1982). This time around, 4-H, along with the U.S. Army Child and Youth Services, has responded by creating Operation: Military Kids (OMK). There are currently 20 states with OMK grants; 15 more are in the process of completing applications. Now through OMK 4-H'ers are making Hero Packs, backpacks filled with items that recognize the sacrifices of children of military service members when their parents are deployed. Through Speak Out for Military Kids, they are raising awareness of the issues faced by "suddenly military" youth and motivating others to action.

Extension has always responded to community needs in times of disaster. A colleague recently likened the response that is necessary in this situation to Extension's response to the Mississippi River floods in the early '90s. Floods are natural disasters. The Global War on Terrorism has created what I would call an "un-natural disaster." It is a human creation, not one of nature. But our response must be similar--swift, comprehensive, and targeted. While floods and other natural disasters are generally more local in their effects, the Global War on Terrorism is much more pervasive. I know that in my own state there is not a county that is unaffected by military deployments. And in just the past 5 weeks, we've had five opportunities to distribute Hero Packs. Ironically, it's the National Guard that assists when natural disasters strike. Now they need us to assist their children and families while they are deployed beyond their states' borders.

Learning About Military Kids from First-Hand Experience

I also felt compelled to write after spending a week attending Operation Purple Camp Wright-Patt with 140 youth, all of whom have a parent in some phase of the deployment cycle. Knowing how busy I usually am, colleagues asked if I needed to be there the entire week. My response was "yes". I knew I needed to be there because I needed to experience first hand the issues and concerns of these military youth. While a long, hot bath and a good night's sleep could erase the memory of sweating in the 90-plus heat and sleeping on a narrow folding cot in a crowded cabin, nothing can erase what I gained by attending this camp. It's one thing to read about the issues and concerns of military kids, but it's another thing to be able to picture names and faces and to hear their own words about what a parent's deployment means. I needed to be there so that now when I talk about military kids, I can speak from the heart and not just my head.

On the one hand, the kids attending camp were just like any other kids. They ate camp food, they stayed up late in the cabins, and they made new friends. For many, it was their first time at camp, and there was the expected homesickness that follows. But another thing that they all had in common made them not like other kids. And that's also why I needed to be there.

I needed to meet Mitchell, whose insightful answers to the question of how to turn negative experiences into positive ones seemed very mature for someone so young. The coping strategy that he suggested was to "realize that time flies."

I needed to share a cabin with Christine, a volunteer with two children attending camp, whose husband is serving with the Army in Iraq. I had to hear her cell phone ring after midnight one night, and hear the sound of her voice as she realized the call was from her husband.

I needed to meet Lauren, a thoughtful teen who gave me a hug at the end of camp and told me that she liked the stress management sessions that were a part of the evening camp activities.

I needed to meet Michael, who on the third day of camp started crying all of a sudden and said he wanted to go home. He missed his little brother whose birthday was in 2 days, and he missed his dad who is in Iraq. After we could name some things that he was having fun doing at camp (such as archery, canoeing, and swimming), we convinced him to change into his swimsuit and join his group in the pool. Michael stayed through camp. As he completed the camp evaluation, he asked me how to spell "archery," and it didn't surprise me to see that he was answering the question about the best part of camp. Not only that, but at the closing ceremony his counselors awarded him the archery ribbon for his group. I smiled when he told me that he was going to give the Hero Pack that he made to his little brother as a late birthday present. Michael made it through camp, so he was a hero too.

After camp, I received an e-mail from Joshua's stepfather, who has been deployed four months and is stationed at Abu Ghraib prison. He e-mailed to tell me that Joshua really loved the camp and "couldn't tell me enough about it" when he called. But he was also concerned that Joshua had been getting slightly short tempered with his mother lately. Was there a correlation to the amount of time he had been deployed? I answered his e-mail, and that's another reason I needed to go.

Why Action Is Needed

I am not working alone. I have support from a team of caring and committed people--my Operation Military Kids statewide team. News stories have helped to spread the word about what we're doing. More volunteers have come forward. But it's not enough. I end each day with unfinished tasks. It's like I am filling sandbags to stop the flood waters, but I can't fill them fast enough. I know I'm not alone, but some days it feels like an "Army of One."

I've managed to get creative so I can extend what I am able to do. Some weeks I find myself spending all of my time working on this effort, even though I have other things to do. Because it can't wait. The work often comes when it's not convenient for me, when I have other things that I should be doing. But I don't get to pick when and where a unit is deployed. I just try to remember that it's not convenient for children to have their mom or dad go away for a year or more to fight in a war, kids who don't get to choose what happens to them.

Every month, more military service members are being deployed. The reorganization of the military means that deployment will be the norm, not the exception. Some have deployed a second, even a third, time. This is a time for Extension to deploy its resources with full force to assist military youth and families. Time to examine policies that inadvertently may exclude those who are not already members of 4-H from participating in certain activities. Time to put aside county and state boundaries. Time to put aside turf issues of program areas. Time to make a difference. Because there's plenty of work to be done. It needs to be done now. So don't wait until you are asked to do something--contact your state's 4-H military liaison to see how you can contribute. There are Mitchells, Michaels, Laurens, Christines, and Joshuas in your state, and they are waiting for you.

Note: Contact information for 4-H Military Liaisons may be found at the Operation: Military Kids Web site <>. The Ohio 4-H Military Web site is <>.

Operation Purple is the name of camps receiving grants from the National Military Family Association, funded by Sears. (See <> for more information). There were 23 such camps funded in 2005.


Ferrari, T. M., & Lauxman, L. (2005, May). What have we learned from joining forces with the military: Challenges, lessons learned, and creative solutions. Seminar presented at the Extension Children, Youth, and Families at Risk (CYFAR) Conference, Boston, MA.

Wessel, T., & Wessel, M. (1982). 4-H: An American idea 1900-1980: A history of 4-H. Chevy Chase, MD: National 4-H Council.