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Kevin Schmiegel (left) and Paul Cucinotta and are retired Marine colonels with 47 years of combined service. They have seven children between them.

We have been close friends for 27 years. Our kids grew up together. As Marines, we served in the same artillery battalion. As military husbands and fathers, and as retired veterans with more than 47 years of active-duty service between us, we’ve shared similar experiences both on and off duty.

Writing about these experiences isn’t always easy, because it evokes raw emotions and conjures painful memories. When it comes to our kids, and what they experienced, too, those emotions are intensified.

It is difficult to personally convey their courage and selfless sacrifice in the face of adversity to anyone outside of our immediate families and close friends. But we hope that our stories will help create a better understanding of the strength and resilience of military kids, like ours, and build empathy for the burdens so many of them must endure.

Between us, we have seven wonderful kids who have moved a dozen times, changed schools more than 30 times and parted ways with too many friends to count. Oftentimes in having to “start over,” they were isolated and only had each other, their brothers and sisters and other military families to lean on.

Collectively, the two of us spent 2,000 nights apart from them – nights when we didn’t eat dinner with them, hear about their days or tuck them into bed. We missed their soccer games, teacher conferences, sad and happy moments and proud accomplishments, as well as important milestones and events in their lives.

We were absent for birthdays, special occasions, Mother’s and Father’s Days and holidays. Our kids laughed without us and cried without us. Some years they even grew up physically and emotionally – without us.

Deployments were the most challenging, more for them than us. We had our mission to keep our focus. For them, imagining what we were experiencing and “not knowing” often became a negative distraction.

Yet they somehow found refuge with each other and the military community surrounding them. Unfortunately, the community outside the gates didn’t really understand what they were going through.

On a rare occasion when Paul picked his daughter, Marissa, up from school, her friends remarked, “We didn’t even think you had a dad. Why is he gone so much anyway?”

We don’t share this to elicit sympathy or pity. Quite the contrary – in a lot of ways our children (Marissa, Luke, Karl, Nick, Joey, Jack and Sam) are better human beings as a result of the challenges they faced as military kids.

The military lifestyle helped them grow into strong, independent, resilient young adults because of their experiences, not in spite of them.

Instead of sympathy, we hope you will think of your own family’s life experiences – and consider what it might be like to walk in the shoes of the thousands of children of deployed troops who are without their father or mother right now.

In the same way, think about what it must be like for the service members themselves who missed Easter and Passover with their children and spouses earlier this month. Now, think of your own experience and what you might like to say to these military families if you were given the opportunity.

Paul and I are sharing our personal stories for a reason. We’re asking you: The next time you see a military family in a supermarket, at the mall or anywhere in the community, go a step beyond saying “thank you” and talk to them about their experiences.

Ask them what life is like in the military. We are confident that in getting to know them, you will recognize the sacrifices they make every day in service to our nation.

Your interaction will help many of them feel less alone and isolated – feelings that are reported, year after year, by a majority of currently serving families in Blue Star Families Annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey.

Your kindness and your engagement will make them feel welcome and help them thrive as a valued member of the community, where your families live, work and serve together.

Paul Cucinotta of Alexandria and Kevin Schmiegel of Arlington are retired Marine colonels with 47 years of combined service. They previously led three national military and veteran nonprofits and recently co-founded a social impact company called ZeroMils.

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