MACON (AP) — Kendall Raley fiddles with the silver beaded chains around her neck. On them hang three dog tags — one is hers and one is her father's. The third she received earlier in April in commemoration of Month of the Military Child.
"I never take them off, especially when he's gone," she said.
Her father, Master Sgt. Robert Raley, has been in the military for 22 years and is currently stationed at Robins Air Force Base.
On Kendall's right arm dangles a colorful array of rubber wristbands, several of which have military significance.
A burgundy bangle reads "Operation Military Kids," the camouflage band reads "Supporting our Troops," and another green one says, "Defending Freedom." A fourth woven, camel skin bracelet has no inscription but was a gift her father bought for her while deployed overseas.
Master Sgt. Raley has been deployed four times during the eighth grader's career at Northside Middle School and returned from his last stint only recently.
"He came back a month and 12 days ago," Kendall said.
Kendall's life is a balance between wanting to be a normal kid and pride in being a military kid.
"I want to be called a military kid," she said. "It makes me feel special, but sometimes you're just a normal kid and want to do normal things. It's hard in ways because your parents have to leave on deployment. It's especially hard because I'm a daddy's girl."
Kendall, 13, is one of more than 7,700 Houston County students who are military affiliated — more than 3,000 have parents who are active duty — making up 28 percent of the district's student population. More than 89,000 children statewide have at least one parent currently serving in the military.
Every day in Middle Georgia may be armed forces appreciation day, but since 1986 when designated by then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, April has been for the children who support service members both in and out of uniform.
"A lot of times we tend to get the focus as service members wearing the uniforms for the sacrifices we make, but not one of us could do anything without the support we get from our families," said Chief Master Sgt. Patrick Bowen, during an assembly at Russell Elementary School. "We could not do the things that we do without the love and support that we get at home."
With one parent around six months out of the year, there are a lot more chores around the house and more time spent helping younger siblings with homework, Kendall said.
Those times when the family is all together are packed with vacations and family time, sometimes just laughing while hanging around the house, she said.
"He's marking memories in our minds, so when he's gone you have things to remember," she said.
Though her father is constantly on the move, Kendall has been in the Houston County School System since first grade after her family moved from Florida.
That opportunity is one ounce of consistency many military children are not allowed.
Kaitlyn Kalch, 17, and Chris Watts, 16, have each been at Veterans High School for about a year.
Watts, a sophomore, has lived in Alaska and other parts of Georgia, and Kalch, a junior who was born on Robins Air Force Base, seems to have come full circle. Both also previously called Germany and Florida home.
The average military child will move six to nine times during their K-12 years , said Lesley Darley, Robins Air Force Base school liaison officer.
Col. David Southerland, vice commander of the 78th Air Base Wing at Robins Air Force Base, has taken note of his own children's experiences.
Throughout his more than 30-year tenure in the Air Force, his family has moved 16 times, he said during a Houston County board of education meeting.
"We've lived in four different countries and lived throughout about half of the United States," he said. "For me, that's a great opportunity. My children have some experiences that some kids won't ever experience, living in different cultures and learning what different, other people are like; but I was born and raised in Atlanta and I moved one time in my entire life and I was traumatized just from one time. There are some challenges that go along with being a military child, and one of those things is to move.
"One of the great things about moving around is that you eventually end up in great communities, and one of those great communities is here in Houston County."
Kalch and Watts have each navigated the life of military children. They both nod in agreement while the other explains what it's like, and often have had some experiences similar enough that they finish each other's thoughts.
For both students, athletics have served as an avenue to form new bonds.
Still, switching schools can bring about issues with different school calendars, curriculums and adjusting to different cultures, they said.
To help alleviate some of the challenges, 41 states have adopted the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which seeks to make transition easier by, among other things, waiving courses for graduation if similar course work has been completed in another state and accepting end-of-course exams and other tests from other states in lieu of requirements in the receiving state.
According to W. John Matthews III, program specialist with Interstate Commission on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, Georgia could become the next state to adopt the compact, as Senate Bill 227 was passed during the current legislative session and is on Gov. Nathan Deal's desk awaiting signature.
At the local level, Darley, the base school liaison, organizes comfort and assistance programs for military students, sometimes orchestrating surprises with deployed parents who come home early.
Darley also works with Houston County 4-H, which received a $20,000 grant to bring to the area Operation: Military Kids, which provides activities and events for children impacted by deployment.
Military students face their own unique set of challenges, stated a Month of the Military Child proclamation read at the board of education meeting.
"These children are a source of pride and honor for us all, and it is only fitting that we take time to recognize their contributions, celebrate their spirit, and let our men and women in uniform know that while they are taking care of us, we are taking care of their children," the proclamation read. "When parents serve in the military; their children also serve and are our heroes, too."
Chief Master Sgt. Bowen summed it up for Russell Elementary students a few days later.
"I salute you for everything you do for your parents," he said.