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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand at NPR West in California.

Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, we've reported a lot about U.S. troops and the toll the wars have taken on them. But we haven't heard much from the perspective of their children back at home.

Now we bring you a story about two teenage girls whose fathers went to war. The girls have struggled to find their bearings, and they say there are thousands of troubled military kids just like them. So, they've hatched an intriguing idea to help, as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: If you surf the Web, you can find all kinds of videos of teenagers being teenagers.

(Soundbite of Internet video)

Unidentified Man: We.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: Those kids are breathing helium. This one got asked out on a date.

(Soundbite of Internet video)

Unidentified Woman: No way. No way. Oh, my god. Oh, my god.

ZWERDLING: But Moranda and Kaylei's videos are different.

(Soundbite of Internet video)

Ms. MORANDA HERN: I'm Moranda Hern, and I'm a military teen.

Ms. KAYLEI DEAKIN: I'm Kaylei Deakin, I'm 16, and I'm also a California military teen.

ZWERDLING: They're looking straight into the camera on YouTube. Hern looks like a cheerleader. Deakin has a bright, blonde Mohawk and punky clothes.

Ms. HERN: During my dad's deployment, it was a really tough time for my family. And the more we identified with other military youth from across California, we saw they had the same need.

ZWERDLING: So these two high school girls have decided to do something that apparently nobody has done before. The Pentagon hasn't done it. Governors and mayors haven't done it, at least, we can't find any record. The girls explain it on their Web site.

(Soundbite of Internet video)

Ms. DEAKIN: This is actually to be an annual two-day conference.

ZWERDLING: The girls are trying to organize the first major get-together for the children of troops who've gone to war.

Ms. DEAKIN: We'd like to boost these girls and their self-esteem and their self-confidence.

Ms. HERN: We are growing the sisterhood with our mantra. Ready? Okay, drum roll it.

(Soundbite of slapping)

Ms. HERN: Unite, inspire, lead.

ZWERDLING: They call their conference The Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs. BDUs are Army-speak for battle uniforms. This sounds sort of corny, but everybody who meets them says these teenagers make you feel a little more confident about America's next generation of leaders.

Brigadier General MARY KIGHT (National Guard, California): I know that I wasn't thinking like they were at that age.

ZWERDLING: That's the No. 2 commander of California's National Guard. She's Brigadier General Mary Kight. The teenagers have asked her to support their conference, and she says she was blown away.

Brig. Gen. KIGHT: Because they are just - they are reaching for the skies.

ZWERDLING: Do you think they'll reach it?

Brig. Gen. KIGHT: Oh, there's no doubt in my mind.

ZWERDLING: Moranda Hern and her parents live near Fresno, palm trees, chirping birds. The day I stopped by, Kaylei Deakin was visiting from San Diego.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: In some ways, they both seem girlish and giggly, very high school. On the other hand, they'll be old enough next year to join the military and go to war. Hern's father is a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard's Air Wing, and she says, you know what one of the worst things was when he went to war a couple years ago? Her friends turned away.

Ms. HERN: I was like a social pariah because my dad was gone and they didn't know how to handle it.

ZWERDLING: And actually, therapists who work with military children say this is a common problem, especially for kids like Hern and Deakin, because their fathers are in the National Guard. If their families lived on military bases, all the other kids would share the same problems. But troops in the National Guard are scattered around the community.

Hern says none of her friends had military parents, so they didn't understand what it's like.

Ms. HERN: I mean, they wouldn't call me. They wouldn't return my calls. They wouldn't come over, see how I was doing. You know…

ZWERDLING: Well, why do you think your father being away would make your friends not come around? I mean, maybe you're being a little paranoid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HERN: I wasn't being paranoid. They just weren't coming around. I mean, I even asked one of them. She said, I just don't know how to act around you, and so I don't want to be around you.

ZWERDLING: Hern says both she and her mother became like hermits. They just sat around watching TV.

Ms. HERN: And we had, like, one meal a day because we weren't really hungry. And so, I think I lost, like, 15 pounds.

ZWERDLING: At the time, the two teens didn't know each other. Deakin's father is a major in the Army National Guard, and when he went to Afghanistan, her grades plunged from all As to Cs and an F.

Ms. DEAKIN: My confidence dropped. Band, I would do bad band. I'm usually a great player.

ZWERDLING: What do you play?

Ms. DEAKIN: Flute and French horn. I just didn't feel like practicing.

ZWERDLING: Deakin feels like her whole family went out of whack when her father went off to war - her mother, her younger sisters.

Ms. DEAKIN: When the girls were misbehaving and we had guests over, I would discipline them because my mom would sit there.

ZWERDLING: It sounds like you were, in some ways, sort of taking over your mom's role.

Ms. DEAKIN: Yeah. And about six months into it, me and my mom started fighting. It was before Thanksgiving and, you know, like, we need to plan family Thanksgiving with our family, and she shoved me out the garage door.

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. DEAKIN: And I came back at her, and then we started fighting.

ZWERDLING: And the girls say things got even tougher at first when their fathers came home. They had fantasized it'd be an amazing reunion. But one says her father was edgy and distant. The other says her father bossed her around like a soldier. And then, Moranda Hern and Kaylei Deakin met each other, and they were soul mates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HERN: I mean, we only knew each other for like, a day, and we were finishing each other's sentences. It was just weird.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: They were both attending a conference sponsored by Maria Shriver, she's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife. The conference was all about inspiring young women to follow their dreams. And suddenly, Hern had hers. She opens her laptop to tell what happened next.

(Soundbite of song, "Eye of the Tiger")

ZWERDLING: She keeps "Eye of the Tiger" on her desktop.

Ms. HERN: That's been our, like, our theme song. It gets us pumped.

ZWERDLING: Anyway, Hern and Deakin decided, let's have a conference for 500 military daughters from all over California. And then these two 16-year-olds asked to present their plan to Brigadier General Kight. They went to National Guard headquarters in Sacramento. Later, the girls delivered their pitch for me, too.

Ms. HERN: Okay, this is the PowerPoint for our program…

Brig. Gen. KIGHT: Both Moranda and Kaylei were sitting at - standing up in front of the screen. They were actually describing their vision.

Ms. DEAKIN: Our mission is to bring together military girls ages 13 to 18 to help their self-esteem…

ZWERDLING: Kight says she couldn't believe it. The girls had already booked a convention center.

Ms. HERN: Travis(ph) Memorial District Hall.

ZWERDLING: They had a detailed agenda.

Ms. DEAKIN: It's going to start at 8:00 in the morning, and the girls need to be there at 7:00.

Ms. HERN: Okay, we'll come through the purple carpet here. We'll get our gift bags. We will go into this break…

Brig. Gen. KIGHT: I just wanted to run up and hug them, but they had so much to say.

Ms. HERN: We'd like two keynote speakers…

Brig. Gen. KIGHT: They reminded me - they reminded me that anything is possible.

ZWERDLING: Kight says she's trying to get the National Guard to help make it come true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: The kids' parents say they're proud of their daughters, but they don't gush about what they're doing. For instance, Rick and Melinda Hern say Moranda started paying her own way to summer camp back when she was eight. She sold trinkets to neighbors.

Lieutenant Colonel RICK HERN (144th Fighter Wing, National Guard): I can't say that I'm impressed with her every time because I already know she does a really good job. And it makes me…

Ms. MELINDA HERN: But it's the…

Lt. Col. HERN: What's that?

Ms. MELINDA HERN: But it's the norm for her.

Lt. Col. HERN: Yeah. I'm impressed with it, but it's not that I'm not accustomed to it either.

ZWERDLING: And the parents say the conference isn't a done deal yet.

Ms. MELINDA HERN: We have the budget on paper, we just don't have the money to back the budget.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: But the girls say, no problem. They'll ask corporations to help out.

Ms. HERN: Some of them would be, like, Disney or Google, Target, Dove.

ZWERDLING: Where do you get this confidence you guys exude?

Ms. DEAKIN: Me and Moranda have the willpower and whatever we can do, we'll make it done and…

Ms. HERN: That's the whole thing. Like, there were, especially in the beginning, enough people who thought this program was too big, too far-fetched. And so, if we didn't believe fully and convince everyone and ourselves that it was going to happen, then it wouldn't happen.

ZWERDLING: Hern and Deakin are so convinced it's going to happen, they've already set the date. Their conference kicks off March 12th next year.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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