WASHINGTON – Whitney Rhone, a bright-eyed, college-bound high school senior from Maryland has been having trouble taking tests since her father, a Marine master sergeant, was deployed to Kuwait, and now may be in Iraq.
"It's just really hard" to concentrate, said Rhone, who has only contacted her father twice since February.
The hardest part, she told other military kids at school this week, is not being able to have him around. If the war goes on, he will miss prom and graduation.
"I'm so sad about it," she said.
School administrators say they are seeing increased levels of anxiety and sadness among children whose parents were deployed or are on standby for deployment to the Middle East.
It has left officials scrambling to provide support groups and send home information to help children of military parents.
At Whittier Elementary, just two miles from Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., there were "a lot more criers" this week, said school counselor Heather Quill.
She started "Heroes," a support group for children of military families, in response. More than 30 children took advantage of the group this week, Quill said.
Whittier has also contacted the families of each child with a deployed parent and offered the students access to e-mail and phones at the school to contact the loved one abroad. Two students spoke by satellite phone this week to their dads, who are stationed together overseas.
Other counselors have also been forced to respond.
"[Deployment] is like when parents split up," said Cydney Wentsel, supervisor of guidance and counseling for Harford County, Md. Public Schools. "But, now the schools are faced with a greater number of children upset by feelings of loss at the same time."
In Prince George's County, Md. where military children are scattered throughout the district, school officials have directed counselors to monitor children in military families who may need assistance. The county has school psychologists ready to work with administrators and counselors in the schools, said spokeswoman Lynn McCawley.
Baltimore County, Md. schools sent information to parents, teachers and counselors about the signs and symptoms of stress in children of different age, said Lynne Muller, director of guidance counseling.
"We don't want to be caught off guard like we were during 9/11," she said.
National Association of School Psychologists spokeswoman Kathy Cowan agreed that it is best to be prepared.
"It's important that schools get ready to help the family [of deployed service members], making sure they know which children have family members deployed," Cowan said.
She suggested that guidance counselors provide discussion groups for children and spend time in classrooms observing those who have a family member deployed.
Child psychologists at the University of Maryland, College Park, also said it is important for adults to protect children of deployed parents from disturbing television coverage of the war.
"The news in the home creates a realization that a parent could be killed," said Charles Flatter, chairman of the Institute for Child Study at College Park. "That is not something that young children usually think about, and if they do, they panic."
But Ned Gaylin, professor of family studies at College Park campus, said that adults should not lie to children in an attempt to protect them. It is important to listen to children and tell them the "truth, nothing but the truth."
Gaylin said adolescents need a sounding board for their ideas and feelings. Empathetic listening will help those who need to talk, he said.
Rhone's discussion group has been named "Anchor." School President Heather Gossart, who organized the group just after the start of the fighting, said students from military families go through unique experiences that other military children can understand.
"On a base, the families have a lot of support," Gossart said. "But off base, in a school where the majority of students are not military, no one can really appreciate what it is like to go home to a newly single-parent family."
Anchor meets for one hour on Monday afternoons, but students who need to talk to an adult or to other military children are welcome to come to the office any day of the week, Gossart said.
"The biggest enemy facing these children is believing they are experiencing something that no one else can relate to or that their sacrifice and their parent's sacrifice not understood," Gossart said.