How 2 Teens from Military Families Are Urging Others to 'Use Their Voice' About Overlooked Struggles

A new survey sheds light on the struggles faced by teenagers growing up in military households

Elena Ashburn and Matthew Oh
Elena Ashburn and Matthew Oh. Photo: Courtesy Elena Ashburn

The children of military service members are often celebrated for their emotional adaptability. They move at a moment's notice depending on their parent's deployment, hopscotching the globe, moving from school to school and leaving friends.

But the kids, the comforting narrative goes, are tough. They'll be fine.

But maybe they won't be — and a new survey, conducted by teenagers from military families themselves, sheds light on the struggles of this taken-for-granted group.

The survey resulted from a partnership between Bloom: Empowering the Military Teen, an organization run by teens from military families, along with the National Military Family Association. It drew from 2,000 respondents between the ages of 13 and 19, showing that 42% had signs of significant emotional distress, while 36% expressed concerns about food insecurity.

According to Elena Ashburn, a 17-year-old co-founder of Bloom who helped spearhead the project, being a teen from a military family "is the perfect storm for having a hard time with your mental health."

First, she says, there's the feeling of rootlessness that comes from moving from place to place. There's also the distress of having a parent gone for long stretches — and sometimes in harm's way: "There's that terrified thought in the back of your mind of, 'Will I see them again?'" says Ashburn.

She adds, "Sometimes you feel like you can't reach out because of the expectation that you're resilient. Because military brats are 'strong,' 'resilient.' But of course you're sad to move away from your friends. That's normal."

Ashburn co-founded Bloom with her friend, Matthew Oh, also 17. It's an organization run by military teens that serves as a resource for them, a one-stop shop to find advice and support about unique aspects of their experience. The organization covers everything from emotional support to nuts and bolts concerns like switching over transcripts from one school to another.

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Ashburn and Oh became friends while parents of theirs were stationed in Carlisle, Penn. They were devastated to be abruptly split apart, an all-too-common fate for military kids: According to Besa Pinchotti, Executive Director and CEO of the National Military Family Association (NMFA), military kids move every two to three years.

How 2 Teens from Military Families Are Urging Others to 'Use Their Voice' About Overlooked Struggles
Bloom founders Genevieve Oakley, Nate Martin, Matthew Oh, Elena Ashburn and Catherine Mader. Courtesy of National Military Family Association

Ashburn and Oh resolved to stay in touch — and to help others in the same predicament. The creation of Bloom let them know they were hardly alone in their feelings.

The survey enabled military teens to "use their voice," says Oh. "To see them not being afraid of being honest about their mental health and food insecurity — it was very unifying."

One of the surprising findings of the survey was that 65% of respondents said they planned to serve in the military as adults. That figure was troubling to Ashburn and Oh — evidence that "the military is becoming separate from the general population," says Oh. "With a lot of people, military life is all they've known, and staying in the military is comforting."

How 2 Teens from Military Families Are Urging Others to 'Use Their Voice' About Overlooked Struggles
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona met with 11 teenagers of military families, teens, including Bloom founders Elena Ashburn and Matthew Oh. The conversation took place during the National Military Family Association's annual summit, where the teens of Bloom also released their first of its kind field guide designed for teachers, principals, coaches, parents and peers. Courtesy of National Military Family Association

To Ashburn, who wants to pursue a career connected to research and non-profit organizations, that figure underscores the need to focus on mental health. If military teens are going to become the next generation of American service members, "We have to make sure they'll be able to do so to the best of their ability," she says.

The survey, Ashburn and Oh believe, is a first step in addressing these issues. Because the default — and false — assumption is that military teenagers don't need support.

Says Oh, who wants to pursue a career in music education, "A lot of people like to say that military kids and spouses are resilient and can weather any hardship. That's true, but often it's used as an excuse. Like, 'They can get through it.' But that's not a reason to let these issues persist."

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