Children wave flags and hold on tight while giving final hugs to their moms and dads heading to war. After those tearful goodbyes, the children return home to face life –first days of school, drivers’ tests and first dates.

Those scenes have played out for decades, but today’s military children face a challenge not experienced by those before them: Many mothers and fathers have been deployed three, four, five or more times to Afghanistan and Iraq. Some may be away for half of their children’s formative years, with frequent transitions from living at home to serving overseas.

The U.S. Department of Defense is turning to University of Central Florida professor Deborah Beidel to help find out how deployments impact family members at home. Her UCF team already has earned national attention for developing an innovative program that helps active-duty military personnel and veterans with PTSD. This time, they will examine how the stress of multiple deployments impacts families and determine what resources should be provided or developed to help them.

Unlike researchers in most previous national studies, Beidel’s team will do more than interview families. They’ll be measuring family members’ levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. The team also will measure the family members’ sleep patterns by having them wear devices similar to wristwatches that track their movements while in bed.

“It’s hard for kids to express how they feel,” said Beidel, who this year earned the Pegasus Professor Award given to UCF’s most outstanding faculty members. “Boys are told not to be emotional, not to be scared, and even young boys learn how to filter those emotions. But you can’t filter your cortisol and you can’t filter your sleep. Those are objective measures that are not colored by society’s expectations or how you should feel.”

Beidel’s team is looking for families throughout Central Florida – in the Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Daytona Beach, Lakeland and Melbourne areas – to participate in the study. Her co-investigators, professors Candice Alfano at the University of Houston and Charmaine Higa-McMillan at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, also are looking for families.

To participate, families must have a deployed caregiver in any branch of the military and at least one child 7 to 17 years old. The caregiver at home does not necessarily have to be a mother or father, but does have to be a primary caregiver.

The Department of Defense provided a three-year, $2.7 million grant for the study. Researchers also are recruiting three other types of families to compare to the military families. One group will include military families with both parents or other caregivers at home, a second group will include families with only one parent or caregiver at home due to a separation or divorce, and a third group will include non-military families with both parents or caregivers at home.

Families will receive compensation for participating in the study, which will take about 10 hours of their time over one week. Although families need to have at least one child 7 to 17, they can participate if they have children of other ages.

For more information, call 407-823-3910.

Update: Helping Military Personnel, Veterans Overcome PTSD

In a separate program funded by the U.S. Army, the UCF research team has developed innovative therapies featuring the real smells of war to help those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.

Servicemen and women returning from those countries often say smells that remind them of war or the countries where they fought can trigger memories or flashbacks of combat trauma. Therapy sessions combine virtual reality experiences in a war zone with real smells to gradually expose participants to the sights, sounds and smells that they experienced while at war.

The Trauma Management Therapy program, which also includes group sessions, has provided treatment for approximately 60 active-duty personnel and veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Participants are reporting that PTSD became much less prevalent in their lives after treatment and has stayed that way after several months.

Beidel continues to recruit participants for a 17-week outpatient program offered at UCF’s main campus in Orlando and at Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare in Daytona Beach.

An intensive three-week program is available at UCF for participants who live outside the area, and that includes complimentary hotel rooms at the Homewood Suites near campus.

Participants in those programs can be from any service branch; they do not need to have been discharged honorably; and they do not need a formal PTSD diagnosis. They also do not need to be UCF students. A member of UCF’s research team will follow up within 72 hours after someone calls, and the team aims to start treatment within a week, if possible.

“The greatest compliment we have received is that people we have treated are referring their military friends to us,” Beidel said.