LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The United States has 2 million military children. They often move from place to place. They live in communities around the country and on military bases all over the world. This week NPR is reporting on the lives of these children. By many accounts, the military does a good job educating these children, and its preschool system gets high marks. Kavitha Cardoza from member station WAMU in Washington, D.C., reports.
KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: If this is what you think the military sounds like...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You're on your way to Afghanistan, you understand?
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Yes, sir.
CARDOZA: I found at military bases, you'll also hear a lot of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
CARDOZA: Forty percent of military children are under the age of 5.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Could I have hugs and kisses goodbye?
CARDOZA: Starting at 5:30 in the morning at a child development center at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Marines in camouflage uniforms carrying diaper bags and stuffed animals drop-off their children before they race to physical training.
JENNIFER RIALTA: Give Mom a kiss. I love you. I love you.
CARDOZA: Lance Corporal Jennifer Rialta signs in her 11-month-old daughter, Persephone.
RIALTA: It allows me to focus on work rather than, you know, worry about what's going on all day. If a parent can't be there themselves, they want to know that their kid's, like, taken care of and safe.
CARDOZA: Rialta's days can run long, so Persephone's been at the center since she was 2 months old.
RIALTA: It can go anywhere from nine to 12 hours, just depending on what's going on. All of a sudden you'll see her do, like, different things that I've never seen before. And I'm like, where did you get that from? I know we haven't taught you that.
PERSEPHONE: Mommy, mommy.
CARDOZA: Persephone's taking part in what's been called the largest employer-sponsored childcare program in the country.
BARBARA THOMPSON: Two hundred thousand children in 800 centers, 3,500 family child care homes, about 40,000 employees.
CARDOZA: That's Barbara Thompson, who oversees the military's child care system. At a time when Pres. Barack Obama is pushing preschool for all, the military child care system is being held up as a model. It boasts high teacher pay, affordable fees, mandatory training, accredited facilities and unannounced inspections. But Thompson says military childcare wasn't always as good. In the early 1980s, it was referred to as the ghetto of American child care.
THOMPSON: My center was a prefabricated chapel from southeast Asia that had actually fallen off the ship into the water. And there was just a bin of broken crayons.
CARDOZA: There were cases of child abuse and neglect. Some centers had staff turnover of 300 percent every year. All this came at a time when more women were joining the military, more single mothers and more families where both parents served, says Deborah Phillips, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University.
DEBORAH PHILLIPS: So the need of the military families ramped up for child care at exactly a time when these terrible conditions of child care were being exposed.
CARDOZA: That led to the Military Child Care Act of 1989, a law that tried to systemically improve the cost, convenience and quality at these centers. Marla Talley, who oversees childcare at Camp Lejeune, says commanders began to recognize how important childcare was to the military's primary mission - defending the country.
MARIA TALLEY: Whether they're on the rifle range and firing or they're qualifying, it requires them to concentrate on exactly what's happening so that they'll be prepared for their ultimate goal, which is going to war. I can't go and train if I'm worrying about whether or not my child is well cared for.
CARDOZA: The child development centers just on this base can now accommodate 1,600 children, from newborns to five-year-olds. That number is triple what it was before in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
TALLEY: I had a pediatrician friend at the Naval Hospital, and he said there's two things that Marines do well. They shoot their guns, and they make babies. When they come back, you can almost watch the calendar. Within nine or 10 months after big units return then there's lots more babies being born.
JACOB KING: What do you got? You got keys?
GRACIN KING: Yeah.
CARDOZA: Two-year-old Gracin King is toddling about the day care center in his Superman shoes, before being scooped up by his dad, Corporal Jacob King. He's a single father who works long hours on anti-tank missiles.
KING: This place stays open as long as I'm at work without charging more.
CARDOZA: The military subsidizes almost two-thirds of the cost of childcare. Teachers in the military are paid more than teachers at civilian childcare centers, $15 an hour versus less than $10 on average. They also get military benefits, and unlike their counterparts at civilian centers, teachers here have to complete a certain amount of professional development. Teachers Deloris Carter and Kristie Tegtmeier say they love it.
DELORIS CARTER: I mean, they pay for the training for you to make more money. They're always wanting you to better yourself.
KRISTIE TEGTMEIER: Just like they teach in the Marine Corps...
CARTER: I love it.
TEGTMEIER: ...Be the best you can be.
CARDOZA: What makes these centers so good is partly what would make any childcare center good. the teachers here also receive specialized training in how to help military children who face unique stresses, including their parents deploying for long periods of time. One way teachers help children process their feelings is through books.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right. We have a book that we're going to read, and it's called "Mommy, You Are My Hero." And Mommy works at...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Work.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: At work, but what kind of job do you think she's doing?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Duty.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She's doing - having - doing duty - the military. We always keep mommy where?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: In our hearts.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In our hearts. We always keep mommy in our hearts.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: And daddy.
CARDOZA: Studies suggests children with a deployed parent are more likely to develop behavioral and emotional problems. Teacher Christy Tegtmeier says she's seen it all.
TEGTMEIER: One time, a child came into the room, just very quiet, and said to me, my daddy left. And I said OK. And he looked at me, and he said, I promise I'll be good. I'll be good. You have to teach them that it is not their fault.
CARDOZA: Research also shows an uptick in child abuse and neglect during deployments, So teachers are trained to recognize and report such incidents. And Tegtmeier says when parents come back from war changed by their experiences, that's confusing for children, as well.
TEGTMEIER: Sometimes the kids will tell you that daddy's really quiet or daddy gets mad at me over little things. And you just have to kind of talk to them and say, you know, it isn't you. He's having a bad day.
CARDOZA: The military spent approximately $800 million last year on early childhood education. But many are worried spending cuts will trickle down to childcare centers. Deborah Phillips of Georgetown University says that would be devastating. She says the early child care system is one of the backbone programs of the military. Phillips says when civilian parents worry about the high cost of child care, she has a simple piece of advice for them.
PHILLIPS: If you want to be assured of having high-quality child care for your child in this country, join the military.
CARDOZA: For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardova. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.