It was 1986, and then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had a difficult U.S. military recruitment and retention problem on his hands. The new all-volunteer professional Armed Forces, established by President Richard Nixon in 1973, were hitting their teenage years. They were still quite a mess: It continued to be rough going with attracting and retaining enough high-quality recruits to fill the ranks—so much so that the murmurs had grown into loud arguments about reverting to a conscription model. But both Weinberger and President Ronald Reagan were committed to making the all-volunteer force (AVF) model work, despite (or because of) threats coming from a hostile USSR.

The more they studied the issue, the more they were convinced that basic quality of life issues and benefits were among the most influential factors in shaping an individual’s choice to serve or continue serving, most especially if that individual had a spouse or dependent children. Himself a WWII veteran with two children, Weinberger recognized that the AVF military was no longer just the soldiers in uniform, but encompassed a much wider community who were affected by, suffered from, or sacrificed for, the American government’s military objectives. Naturally, he believed it was now doubly important for the whole nation—and especially Congress—to understand that an effective professional “Total Force” couldn’t exist without the “Total Force Families.” 

Above all, Weinberger wanted the nation to recognize that some of the greatest, if the most silent, burdens carried by the “force behind the force” were in fact carried by military children—the “military brats,” as they are colloquially, if not affectionately, called.

It was military children’s sacrifices in terms of normal, stable family and school life that enabled their parent(s) to relocate, deploy, and otherwise pursue their military careers in support of the defense of the nation. And so, in 1986, Weinberger dedicated April as the Month of the Military Child. That designation has continued to be honored ever since by the Department of Defense, state and local governments, Congress, and U.S. presidents

Children in military families are typically proud of their “military brat” label and see it as a badge of honor. If still a little obscure, the term has historical, and not behavioral or social, roots. Going all the way back to the 1700s United Kingdom, children living in military barracks during that century’s many periods of war were referred to as “Barrack Rats.” Over time, that phrase supposedly was elided. More plausibly, in the 1800s, the British army began assigning “BRAT” (British Regiment Attached Traveler) to families allowed to travel abroad with a soldier, and the acronym gradually just stuck to military children, eventually being adopted around the world.

Today, U.S. military brats are recognized or represented by the color purple (a combination of all of the colors of the several U.S. service branches’ colors) and, since 1998, by the dandelion flower—because “its seeds are blown far and wide by the wind but it will always plant roots and blossom wherever it lands.”

Today, the “military brat” label connects the 1.6 million children ages 0-18 of the active duty members around the world. But there’s a different category of military brats that are especially deserving of the nation’s recognition, gratitude, and serious study: the roughly 2 million Post-9/11 military children who experienced at least one if not multiple parental deployments—most often to theaters of war—in the twenty years after 2001. 

Already by 2011 (the formal end of the Iraq War), more than 4,300 of these children had had a parent killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As of 2015, that number had reached some 5,000. It’s difficult to know exactly how many American military kids are survivors or orphans of troops who were killed in the line of duty during the Global War on Terror, or who they are, let alone the total number of children survivors of all those who’ve served in the Post-9/11 era. 

Tragically, there does not appear to be any type of database or central repository of information from which to find them. Surveying the past thirty-five years with the Lucas Group, however, the nonprofit Fallen Patriots has estimated that approximately 25,000 children have lost an active-duty parent during that time (whether from accident, illness, hostilities, or suicide). The majority of these fatalities were their fathers. 

We owe a debt to these military children that goes far beyond media pronouncements and themed events once a year in April. A Month of the Military Child may be a necessary if not important step in recognizing the heavy burdens we place on the small community of military families who do the gargantuan global task of defending American interests and territorial integrity. But if we were truly serious about respecting and honoring them, as a nation we would demand our Congress to be serious about supporting our Armed Forces at the levels that we utilize them, and in a timely manner, rather than through the series of last-minute continuing resolutions which undermines at every turn their ability to be the effective fighting force we rely on them to be.