Anything but Ordinary
Something as simple as a story is calling out one of the greatest qualities of the American military family—resilience.
Allison flips and holds her body still in a backbend. She is poised. Graceful. Strong.
This is life for the six-year-old. This is the result of her weekly gymnastics classes, and the hours she spends practicing flipping around on a pink mat in her house.
Life inside the Supple family home is ordinary, yet anything but ordinary. That’s because Allison’s dad, John Supple, is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy and is currently deployed. He’ll be in Africa for a year, and he is only three months into the deployment. Allison and her brother Michael, four, speak to him occasionally when they can. But the reality? Life goes on.
“We’re getting through day-by-day. We have activities to focus on every day. Maybe ten percent of our time is spent on the fact that dad is gone. We don’t dwell on it. We can’t,” says Allison’s mom, Nguyet Supple.
For their family, it means Allison and Michael attending school during the day, taking gymnastics classes in the evenings, and participating in other activities on the weekends. They have dinners together. They get together with other military friends, who Nguyet calls her support system.
The one thing they don’t have on the regular schedule? Phone calls with dad.
“I don’t want them to be disappointed if he has to cancel, which often happens,” says Nguyet. She explains. Schedules change frequently. You have to be near a landline. His calls aren’t predictable. Phone calls won’t go through to cell phones. Sometimes Skype and FaceTime connections are shoddy. “I’ve been there. I don’t want my kids to feel that disappointment,” explains Nguyet.
“I’ve been there. I don’t want my kids to feel that disappointment."
LCDR John Supple has been deployed many times, but this is his first deployment as a dad. Nguyet says the deployment is hard on him too. Holidays are difficult. “Because we’re surrounded with family and celebration. He’s not with us,” says Nguyet.
The Supple family’s description of deployment will feel familiar to other military families. Deployment, trainings, and long hours are a typical part of military life, no matter how atypical it truly is.
Military families have an extraordinary strength—an ability to adapt to change, carry on with the mission when it’s an uphill battle, and keep their head up during times of uncertainty. They display this strength during deployments, too. So how do families cope? How do they make something so drastic, like a 12-month deployment, fold into an ordinary life?
Strength of this nature is found in many places, but oftentimes, there is one common denominator—routine. Family routine doesn’t mean scheduling every minute of the day away; rather it refers to establishing consistent patterns and connections that families can rely on.
Rituals and routines may look different from family to family, but they can make all the difference when you consider the pressure deployment places on families.
The Power of Ritual
United Through Reading harnesses the power of ritual and the simplest family activity—reading—to connect families during some of their most vulnerable times.
The organization was founded in 1989 by the wife of a Naval flight surgeon. He deployed, leaving her and their infant daughter at home. When he returned, his little girl didn’t know him—a common struggle for military families with young children. As a reading specialist, she knew reading together could create an important bond for separated families.
United Through Reading was born.
FACTS BY STATS: 98% of participants reported reduced stress/anxiety among their children; 99% reported a decrease in their own stress; and 99% saw an increase in their child’s interest in reading
Here’s how it works. A commanding officer or chaplain brings the program to his or her service members. The service members can choose from a number of books, provided by United Through Reading. The service member reads the book to a video camera. The footage is packaged onto a DVD or SD card. The service member sends that DVD, along with copies of the books they read, in a package to his or her family. The families can pop in the DVD and see mom or dad on demand.
It’s simple. And the results are significant.
“We listen to it every night during story time,” said Stephanie Keenan. Her family has used United Through Reading through several deployments. “We always took turns reading before [my husband] was deployed, so it just makes sense that we would continue the routine while he is gone.”
Stephanie Eastman’s daughter is 18 months old, and her husband was deployed to Kandahar. “She’s so young. [My husband] is nervous about whether she will recognize him when he gets back,” Eastman explained back in February. “So I show his video to her at bedtime. She always blows him kisses.”
One month later, Eastman joyfully embraced her husband when she welcomed him home from a six-month deployment, his first. And his daughter?
“It was after 2 a.m. before he arrived. [All the soldiers] marched in and got lined up and sang the national anthem. The chaplain came up and asked everyone to bow their heads to pray, and Kayleigh yelled out ‘Dada’ for everyone to hear. No dry eyes around us! She was shy at first, when he got over to us, but then she started smiling. She definitely remembered him. And since he’s been back it’s been 'Dada' everything. And every time he leaves the room or gets out of the car, she says 'uh-oh Dada.' I’m so thankful for the technology we had and specifically the videos of him reading that helped her recognize and remember him!”
United Through Reading serves a diverse community—Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, National Guard, Reserves, Special Ops Teams, and Wounded Warriors. While families primarily use them for deployments, the program is available for all types of separation including drill weekends and duty nights.
United Through Reading serves families in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, National Guard, Reserves, Special Ops Teams, and Wounded Warriors.
Back in the Supple house, Allison, Michael and Nguyet huddle around the laptop as their dad comes on the screen.
“There is only one book, so you guys better share,” John says on screen. Michaels holds his book up, facing the screen—just like dad. He reads If You Give a Dog a Donut. John’s voice is animated and endearing.
Service members who participate in United Through Reading read the books by themselves in a private room. Every detail of the video shot is intentional, down to the clothes the service member is wearing. The service members do not have to be in uniform. They can wear regular clothes. They aren’t in front of a military backdrop, like a tent or a ship. They are in a room full of colorful reading materials, something akin to a classroom. This way, a child can see his or her parent as if he or she were home. And the service member can be fully mom or dad, without fellow service members watching.
In John’s video, he is dressed in casual clothes in a room that has been decorated with posters featuring different storybook characters—Elmo, Thomas the Tank Engine and Curious George—and a stuffed Clifford the Big Red Dog lounging on his chair.
“Can you do your happy dance?” John asks Michael, who gladly obliges. Allison, who has moved away from the laptop, crab-walks on her tumbling mat nearby. She pauses often to listen to her dad’s voice.
“This is really special to me,” says Nguyet as she watches them. “John actually participated in this program before we had kids, sort of as a joke for me. He read me excerpts from the book series Twilight. He used silly voices for Edward and Bella. He wanted me to laugh.”
John’s Twilight video for Nguyet may have been a way to bring light-hearted humor to their deployment, but United Through Reading doesn’t define what “family” means to service members. They allow any service member to participate in the program, regardless of whether they have children or not. Some service members choose to send videos to a niece or nephew, or a close family friend. Although most service members use the program to communicate with children, some, like John, may choose to send a video to a spouse.
When Nguyet saw the new package delivered for her kids, it brought back memories of her own United Through Reading experience—and a big smile to her face.
And that is the point of the program.
Forty Million Stories
Every year, 250,000 children are left at home as a military parent is deployed. Deployments can range in length, but let’s just say on average each deployment is six months, although many are much longer. For one child, that’s 180 bedtime stories. As a group, that’s 40 million bedtime stories.
According to a 2012 study, when a parent is deployed for long periods of time, military children may be vulnerable to social, emotional and behavioral health concerns: problems sleeping, higher levels of anxiety, and sometimes declining grades.1 A 2011 RAND Corporation study showed that even academic outcomes may be affected by a child's poor emotional health during multiple and extended deployments.2
With engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of the military were deployed repeatedly and sometimes up to 15 months at a time. Even today, military families find themselves facing separations, whether the U.S. is in peacetime or at war. Training assignments can be weeks long. Some deploy for humanitarian missions. Sometimes service members are temporarily stationed at a location where families cannot accompany them. Although military children are thousands of miles away, in their homes on military bases or temporarily at a parent’s hometown, military children feel the impact of separation.
But it’s not just children who bear the stress. Deployments impact marriage relationships too. Research around the impact of deployments on military marriages is contradictory and inconclusive, because many focus on divorce rates. However, the Rand Corporation conducted a study that looked specifically at marriage satisfaction around deployments. They found that the biggest difference in marital satisfaction co-occurs with the service members' first deployment. They also found a difference in satisfaction between couples that had experienced deployments versus those that had not. In other words, deployments are a sensitive time for couples, and the initial deployment is a critical period for intervention and support.
Deployed service members who are parents also feel stress, and many times this happens during reintegration—the period of time when the deployed service member returns home, and the family is adjusting to return to “normal.” Deployed parents often worry how their children will react to them when they return. They miss developmental milestones. They face anxiety about not being able to relieve stress at home when it comes to participating in the daily family schedule.
"During deployment, we have to have a routine. The constants are so important."
Even for military families who seem to cope well with deployments, something is needed to help them weather the challenges.
“We love adventure. We love the change every three years. My children pick up and go, and it’s no big deal to them” said Stephanie Keenan, a speech language pathologist with three young children. Her husband is deployed. “But during deployment, we have to have a routine. The constants are so important.”
"The brain won't learn unless it feels secure."
“Routine has a powerful neurological impact. When a child knows what will happen next, it provides security and comfort and liberates the brain to learn and grow. The brain won’t learn unless it feels secure,” said Dr. Katie Penry, a child psychologist and founder of A Friendly Affair, a website providing parenting support, literacy resources and courses online.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading aloud as a way of developing parent-child relationships and strengthening language and literacy skills.3 (It’s as simple as doing the math: Families who read together for 20 minutes a day, seven days a week, get more than 121 hours of bonding time every year).
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“There are some incredible books for parents who can’t be with their children and who, for example, can’t talk to them about being angry. When a child reads a book about a character who is experiencing anger and resolves it, it decreases fear and stress and increases comfort and security. The child associates those positive feelings with the parent and the reading experience,” said Dr. Penry.
Children handle change best if it occurs in the context of a familiar routine. It provides a sense of predictability in a time of uncertainty. If a child has a routine, it reduces stress on the child. They feel safer.
“I encourage families, during times of chaos, to lean in to strict and predictable moments. For children whose parents are deployed, they may have some insecurity because life is unpredictable. A reading routine provides something they can expect,” said Dr. Penry.
And so for military families, the ritual of family reading can be a glue to hold military families tightly together during deployment.
Changing the Tone Around Deployments
“It’s not rocket science what we do,” said Sally Ann Zoll, CEO and President of United Through Reading. “We’re just encouraging people to read.”
But sometimes it’s the sweetest, most simple moments that have the greatest impact. The response from family members is positive.
“When my soldiers are reaching their families, they are happy."
Richard Addo serves as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army and recently returned from a deployment to Al Tigqauddum, Iraq. As a Chaplain, Addo leads activities that help boost morale and allow service members to feel connected in meaningful ways.
“When my soldiers are reaching their families, they are happy,” said Chaplain Addo. “Morale is high.”
Chaplain Addo’s deployments were at small camps, which he said often lack the programs and resources that larger camps may have. For this reason, he found United Through Reading incredibly useful.
Because United Through Reading is relatively easy for commanders and chaplains to set up—they simply have to have a video camera and books on hand—it’s a program that fits most deployment scenarios.
"Daddy can read them stories and send them home, and it's like he's there. It's like he's in the living room, reading the stories to the kids." —Brandy Kelly
Zoll says a frequent story they hear from service members is how United Through Reading changes the tone between spouses.
“When you have one parent at home doing the dinner, baths, dishes, bedtime routine, it gets exhausting,” Zoll said. With United Through Reading, children can spend time with the deployed parent, while the parent at home can have a break.
“It’s similar to what would happen if the spouse were there… you’d say: 'you read to the kids while I do the dishes,'” Zoll said.
It changes the tone in small things too, like phone calls that come in late at night, Zoll said. Instead of complaining and venting to the deployed spouse after an exhausting day, the parent at home says thank you for reading to the kids.
Parents reading daily to their children may be one of the greatest protective factors for families during deployment.Dr. (Lt. Col.) Eric FlakeFormer Chief of Developmental BehaviorU.S. Air Force
For United Through Reading Families, the ritual of reading helps ease the transition home because the routine can stay the same. It gives the service member an immediate role in the family evening routine.
“When my husband returned home [from one deployment], the kids immediately ran and got the book off their bookshelf and said ‘Daddy, Daddy, read the Zooptopia book!’” said Stephanie Keenan.
Routine is sacred.
“For deployed military families, the mission of United Through Reading is crucial. The ability to maintain a sense of family unity while they are separated is paramount to their succeeding and thriving,” said Zoll.
Reading + Resilience
United Through Reading is answering a critical need in the military community—strengthening family ties, easing transitions, and supporting literacy—and has been lauded for its efforts.4
In 2016, United Through Reading delivered more than eight million stories. But it knew it could deliver more. After all, there are 40 million opportunities. So in 2017, it delivered 10 million stories. And it is aiming even higher in 2018, with a goal of 11 million.
Although United Through Reading is connected with the United States military, United Through Reading is not a government-funded organization. It is 100% funded through foundations, individual donations and corporate sponsors.
Through a strong partnership with First Book, United Through Reading purchases books for a reduced price. This means more books in the hands of young children experiencing the stress and anxiety of military deployment.
By partnering with literacy coaches, teachers who specialize in science, engineering, technology, and math curricula, and publishers who are passionate about the program’s mission, United Through Reading promotes literacy as well.
According to its recently published report, Nurturing Literacy Skills in Military Families, “studies have found that developing a love for reading can be even more important for children than building specific literacy skills.” The report details the significant impact of early parent–child relationships on children’s engagement in literacy activities.
The read-aloud experience provided by United Through Reading allows service members to continue to serve as reading role models for their children. By creating positive and affirming associations with reading, moms and dads are able to lay a powerful foundation for literacy and foster a love of reading in their children.
"Reading aloud together creates an emotional bond that nothing else does." —Sally Ann Zoll
Relationship can serve as a powerful tool—one that contributes to a child’s growth and development and overall health and well-being.
Families like Sarah’s can attest the value and importance of connectedness. When Sarah’s dad was deployed, at the end of each day, her mom was exhausted. Her mom would put on the video with her dad reading a story.
Chaplain Dennis Kelly, U.S. Navy, explained it this way. “Sarah would crawl to the TV, pat the screen and use her first word, ‘Dada,’ to request FaceTime long before Apple ever thought of it. When I came home from the second deployment, having been physically present with Sarah for a total of about two of her 14 months of life, she reached out and touched my face, not a cold glass image, but a real person. There was no crying, no pulling away, no transition, just immediate acceptance—we were truly United Through Reading.”
1 Trenton James, M.D. and Jacqueline Countryman, M.D., "Psychiatric Effects of Military Deployment on Children and Families," Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, Feb 2012.
2 Amy Richardson, "Effects of Soldiers Deployment on Children's Academic Performance and Behavioral Health," Rand Corporation, 2011.
3 Lori O'Keefe, "Parents who Read to their Children Nurture more than Literacy Skills," American Academy of Pediatrics, June 2014.
4 United Through Reading received the 2015 Library of Congress Literacy Award for its contribution to increasing literacy levels and the national awareness of the importance of literacy. It received the Community Service Hero Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for providing an innovative response to a critical armed forces community need.
"Read it... Ah-gin" my 1.5 year old implores me each night before bed. Roadwork by Sally Sutton is the favorite. "Plan the road, plan the road, mark it on the map." By now, I have the lines memorized. It's only taken about a thousand recitations. But for my little one, this repetition is not old, it's familiar. And familiar means safe, secure and loved.
I have no idea what it's like to say goodbye to a father or husband for six months or a years time. But I do understand the power of small moments—moments like bedtime stories.
As author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle puts it, “the little things are infinitely the most important.”
United Through Reading specializes in the little but infinitely important things. Read-aloud experiences between parent and child, even husband and wife, allow families to remain connected during seasons of separation that are a routine reality in military life. This simple, but powerful work, deserves our support.
I would like to extend my thanks to the staff at United Through Reading for partnering with us, to our faithful contributors—Jessica and Hailey—for their dedicated efforts to creatively capture this story and especially to the families who opened their lives and homes to us. We are extremely grateful for your courage and strength. And to all those who serve, and your families—thank you for your sacrifice.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly