Page last updated at 14:00 GMT, Monday, 21 December 2009

Helping the hidden victims of war

Julia McNaught with her son Ross McNaught
Julia McNaught says her son is aware his father is in danger

Research into the impact of military deployment on those left behind has been commissioned by the Ministry of Defence.

With more UK troop deaths this year than since the Falklands War, the research could not have been more timely, writes BBC education correspondent Sarah Campbell.

As the conflict in Afghanistan continues, the families of the 9,500 deployed troops there have to live daily with the knowledge that their loved one may be in danger.

It is apparent to him that his dad is in a war zone
Julia McNaught

News from the frontline, via the internet and the media, has never been more readily available.

For most children it remains an issue for grown-ups.

But at Widewell Primary School in Plymouth, where half of the 200 pupils have a parent serving in the Armed Forces, the battle zone is constantly on pupils' minds.

Nine-year-old Ross McNaught's father will not be home for Christmas, as he is helping to train Afghan policemen.

Although many of his classmates share what he is going through, it is not always a good thing.

Ross said: "It can cheer you up a bit but it can make you sad as well, when they know things like my dad nearly got shot."

His mother, Julia McNaught, added: "It is apparent to him that his dad is in a war zone, especially with all the reports coming back about all the deaths."

Sleep problems

Having a parent serving abroad is particularly difficult at this time of year. But a parent could be killed or injured at any time, and this school has to be prepared more than most.

In 2003, concerned at how pupils would be affected by Iraq war, the school set up the Ark Community charity.

Under this programme, which is part-funded by military charities, parents are encouraged to spend time in the school, socialising with each other and getting to know the military personnel who will be there if the worst happens.

Lt Mack McNaught
Lieutenant Mack McNaught is serving in Afghanistan

It is a great help for the families left at home, and for those like Ross's father, Lieutenant Mack McNaught, thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.

He said: "It's always good to have the support of friends and family, but it's more reassuring to know your son has the support of the school from teachers who fully understand what's going on."

Moral support

There are currently 80,000 service families in the UK, but little research has been carried out into the impact deployment has on the children.

Father feednig his child
Parents are urged to come in and get involved

Professor William Yule, of the Institute of Psychiatry in south London, has spent 25 years studying post traumatic stress.

He believes the anxiety levels among forces children may be much greater than is currently thought.

"They are likely to have lots of problems sleeping. They're worried at night about what's going on, with nasty dreams.

"They may have difficulty concentrating in school, depending on what they have heard or what they have seen."

Support levels at this school are high, but it is not the same for every Forces child.

A major study, about to get underway at King's College, London, aims to provide a better understanding of what these children may be going through and how best they can be helped.

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