RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As we focus our attention on the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, there are still thousands of children navigating life with one or both parents deployed overseas. In fact, since 2001, this has been the case for more than 700,000 American children. A play called "Deployed," recently performed in Grand Forks, North Dakota, gives a voice to those feelings. Meg Luther Lindholm has this report.
BRAD DAWSON: When I was young and my dad was deployed, my mom would tell me over and over that he'd be home soon. But soon would take longer than ever.
MEG LUTHER LINDHOLM, BYLINE: That's 14-year-old Brad Dawson. He was in the play and he knows about military deployment from personal experience. His father, Air Force Master Sergeant Craig Dawson, has been deployed four times in the last seven years - first to Iraq and now in Kuwait. When his dad deploys, Brad copes by helping his mom more and spending more time with his younger sister Maisey. But the first few weeks are the hardest.
DAWSON: That's really when I'm trying to help out mom and Maisey because they're really, really hurt. I'm still hurting a little bit, too, but probably not as much as them.
LINDHOLM: Brad's mom, Lisa Dawson, understands her son's need to distract himself, but she worries that he isn't focusing enough on his own needs.
LISA DAWSON: I've tried to tell him over and over that he doesn't have to do that, that he doesn't have to be the man of the house. There is a man of the house; he's just not here right now.
LINDHOLM: Kathleen Coudle-King, who directed the play "Deployed," interviewed students including Bradley at his middle school on the base to gather material for the script. She found that it was easier to get them to write their feelings than to talk openly.
KATHLEEN COUDLE-KING: It wasn't even something they shared amongst themselves. Here we were opening this big can of worms and it was scary, it was scary to talk about.
KELLY PAINTER: For older kids a lot of times they internalize things more and they may not want to talk about it as much.
LINDHOLM: That's Kelly Painter, the military's school liaison officer on the Grand Forks base. She says it's common for older children like Brad to want to be strong for their family. But younger children don't have that same emotional control.
MAISEY DAWSON: I miss, like, cuddling with him and watching TV and going out with him.
LINDHOLM: That's Brad's 7-year-old sister, Maisey Dawson. She was a baby the first time her dad deployed. The next two deployments were hard on her. But her mom says this last deployment, his fourth, was really painful.
DAWSON: He had just returned from the last deployment around Easter of last year and we found out in August he was getting deployed again.
DAWSON: I can only remember when we were in this room. We were having a family meeting, then my mommy and dad said that daddy's going to get deployed one last time. It just doesn't seem fair.
LINDHOLM: Painter says it's important for parents and others to let children express their fears.
PAINTER: Younger kids, we see a lot more clinginess to parents, a lot more fears of separation, of the unknown, not knowing what's going to happen.
LINDHOLM: Lisa Dawson says it's OK for her daughter to cry and be a little angry.
It's really not fair to a 7-year-old. She doesn't really care about any kind of political policies. She just thinks that dad should be here so that they can go on their bike rides together.
One of the play's actors also depicts the joy that military children feel when a parent returns.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEPLOYED")
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (as character) And then I looked up and I couldn't believe it. Walking towards me was my mom. They'd planned it all out. Best present ever. I don't think anything will ever top that.
LINDHOLM: Maisey and Brad are counting down the days until their dad comes home in July. He doesn't expect to deploy again, but they plan to keep him busy camping, fishing and riding bikes with them. For NPR News, I'm Meg Luther Lindholm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.