'I tend to write about families separated by things beyond their control -- war, poverty, prison. When I started to hear about the tours of service being extended beyond what families were expecting and the National Guard folks being called up, I began to wonder what does this mean to the kids. And that was the first question I started with."
Deborah Ellis, an award-winning author noted for writing fiction about the plight of children in developing countries, serves North American children with "Off to War: Voices of Soldiers' Children" to be released in September.
More than 1 million American and Canadian military personnel have taken part in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, according to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, 1.2 million young people in the U.S. have at least one parent in the armed forces. Ellis' book contains interviews with 41 children, ages 6 to 17, from Canada and the United States; nine of her interviewees are from Fort Bragg.
The breadth of Ellis' book is apparent in locales and ages, in differing branches and ranks, in backgrounds and opinions. There's a Pagan family who are anti-war and another family whose members have served in the military for generations. Some children feel estranged from a returning parent, others find their soldier parents don't sweat the small stuff after being overseas. For Ellis, the book was an education in seeing the military as individuals with varied points of view. "They would be strong in any situation, but ... these are phenomenal people."
The commonality is the children's loneliness. "The kids could see when their parents came home that things were different but because their mom or dad wouldn't talk, they felt lonely and left out. They didn't feel like they could bring up subjects because they didn't want to remind their parents of bad experiences. They took on a lot of responsibility for looking after parents and maintaining the silence."
Ellis begins each chapter by explaining issues like friendly fire, post-traumatic stress disorder, fallen heroes and deserters. Then she fades into the background and allows the children tell their stories, which read like pure, unadulterated truth, just the kind of stories children of military families need. Ellis notes that the families who have received the book are pleased with their kids' reflections, surprised they knew so much.
There are similarities: The children miss spending holidays and birthdays together; they hide feelings; they fear for their parent's well-being; and surprisingly, quite a few of them want to grow up to be veterinarians. Also, many of the families have divorced. And there are differences: those who support the war and those who don't; children who feel community support and children, mostly of National Guard militia, who are the only children in their schools experiencing war's effects.
But above all, individual voices and perspectives shine. Like the 13-year-old who wonders "with so many service men and women coming back from Iraq, spooked by those sounds, you'd think people back home here would have a heart and cancel all the fireworks." The 17-year-old boy whose father suffers from PTSD and snaps at certain sounds and is confused about why the military keeps sending him overseas. The 13-year-old girl who cries in the school bathrooms when she can't keep her mind off the danger her father's in. The 6-year-old who says, "I'm going to be a soldier when I grow up because they have guns and I like shooting bad guys. The hard part would be dying." An 8-year-old who says, "I could be laughing and singing and right at that moment, he could be getting shot, or bombed..."
In January, Ellis will publish "Voices of War," a collection of interviews with Iraqi children, now refugees in Jordan.
The most startling thing to Ellis in all her interviewing has been that the children had never given any thought to what the world would look like without war. "It's our fault that we've never presented a world without war as something that might one day be possible, something they could think of, or imagine. We've got to change that!"