Family Matters: Interview with Debbie Fink of Operation C.H.A.M.P.S. (Part 1 of 2)

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There’s an army of over 700,000 of these tough fighters spanning the ranks of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. None of them received much in the form of medals or awards for their service. These tireless heroes continue to fight nonetheless. They remain encouraged in spite of being tested again and again. They show resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. As you read this, they continue to selflessly serve.


Can you guess the name of this elite fighting force?


Whether you call them Family Members, “Brats”, or Dependents, the youngest of these might be better known as “C.H.A.M.P.S.”! Why? Military life presents unique challenges for the younger set within any military family. Each branch of service provides ongoing support for military families designed to make sure morale stays high at home. You should take full advantage of all the available support resources.

But, there’s something else worth mentioning. This affects all Americans, at home or abroad, whether they’re serving or supporting our Military.


There’s a “disconnect” between two communities! No, I’m not referring to what one branch of military service offers that the other branch may not; I’m referring to a couple of communities you know very well – The Military Community and The Civilian Community and their ability to better understand each other.


In this edition of GOING CIVILIAN, you’ll meet Debbie Fink and learn about a unique program whose goal is not only about uplifting Military Children, but also bridging the gap between the military and civilian communities.


Charles “Chazz” Pratt III (CP3): Tell me a little bit about Operation C.H.A.M.P.S. – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel – and how it got started?

Debbie Fink (DF): Operation CHAMPS is a public health and education initiative that was launched in October 2012, to celebrate and support America’s children of the military and their families, and to build the bridge of understanding between our military and civilian worlds.  Our children’s book – titled “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel” – is the cornerstone for this initiative.  There are ~718,000 6-12 year old Champs (the initiative’s target audience) across all five military branches.  We also aim to reach and teach the Champs’ countless civilian classmates.


CP3: Your website says that Operation CHAMPS engages civilian communities in giving back to military families. How do you go about doing this engagement?

DF: Operation CHAMPS, newly launched at the University of Maryland, offers four ways to engage civilians in giving back to military families:  1) CHAMPSitting Program:  training college students and other civilians to be ‘militarily culturally competent’ CHAMPSitters, offering free Champ(baby)sitting to local military families.  2)  “DutyFree Fun” Program:  engaging local businesses to donate free gifts (e.g., a dinner out for a military couple; a spa package for a spouse of a deployed Servicemember; respite for a spouse of a Wounded Warrior, etc.).  3)  “Campus Corps” Program:  organizing volunteers to help out at other military-connected organizational events.  4) “The Little CHAMPS” Program: overseeing the national distribution of “The Little CHAMPS” book, as well as the distribution of the  (Operation CHAMPS) Traveling Classroom CHAMPKit.


CP3: Some people place a patriotic bumper sticker on their car or attend a military-themed parade as a show of gratitude to our military. How does Operation CHAMPS build upon this level of patriotism?

DF: Bumper stickers and parade attendance – it’s all good.  Though for Americans seeking opportunities to make an immediate difference in the lives of our military families, Operation CHAMPS offers easy opportunities to do so.  An individual who donates $10 knows that a copy of “The Little CHAMPS” book is going directly to a Champ, providing support, comfort, and coping skills to the Champ and family. 


Those individuals, PTAS, or local businesses that sponsor a Traveling Classroom CHAMPKit know that they are making a profound and immediate difference in the lives of hundreds and hundreds of American children: classroom by classroom, school by school.


Operation CHAMPS’ UMD program will soon be growing to other campuses nationwide, at state universities located near large military installations.


CP3: The Military is definitely a community within a community. There’s often a “disconnect” between the two communities that highlights the need for a better understanding of military life. How does Operation CHAMPS bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds?

DF: Only 37 percent of military families currently live on military installations; the remaining 63 percent live in over 4,000 civilian communities nationwide. They are our neighbors, coworkers and friends, but the challenges that military children and families face are not widely understood by their civilian peers. With less than one percent of our Nation serving in our military, we believe it is the civic duty of the other 99 percent to understand, appreciate, and support our Servicemembers and their families.   “The Little CHAMPS” book not only helps Champs cope with their challenging lifestyle, but also educates their civilian classmates and school community about military life, while providing simple ways to build welcoming and supportive communities for military families.


We firmly believe that education raises awareness; awareness often translates into acts of gratitude; and acts of gratitude help bridge the gap between our military and civilian worlds.  Through our educational book and awareness-raising programs, our initiative bridges the gap child by child, school by school, community by community.  Working with our growing Alliance – military-connected organizations and now non-military, too – is a critical component to bridging the gap.


CP3: Champs face unique challenges. Their needs are exclusive to military life and specific to the career choice of their parents. What are some of these challenges they face? 

DF: First, let me highlight the benefits:  Champs learn and grow from their military-connected lifestyle:  they are worldly; and, due to their lifestyle, often absorb and exhibit vital virtues, such as:  flexibility, adaptability, patriotism, loyalty, honor, gratitude, citizenship, commitment, and more. 


Now let’s address some of their challenges, remembering that when one member of a family serves in the military, the entire family serves. Facts:

  • Champs move 6 to 9 times over the course of their school years.  The stressors that come with moving are well-documented in the body of psychology: in fact, moving is one of the top three stressors in life.
  • Champs must deal with inconsistent academic requirements as they move around.  Differences in State requirements for academic and athletic participation have negative impacts on achievement and participation.  Slow but steady progress is being made to standardize school requirements, which will help Champs tremendously. 
  • 34% of military parents are “less or not confident” that their children’s school is responsive to the unique aspects of military life (93% attend non-DoDEA schools).
  • The majority of Champs in public schools “feel their classmates and teachers do not understand what they are going through.”
  • More than 700,000 Champs (0-18) have endured one or more parental deployments.
  • Deployments take a toll on Servicemembers physically, mentally and emotionally, and take a significant toll on the families and children – whether it is pre-deployment angst; deployment fears; or reintegration struggles.

CP3: How do you help Champs overcome these challenges?

DF: We emphasize five keys to constructively overcome their challenges and build resiliency:  1) Asking for (and receiving) help from trusted adults.  2) Communication.  3) Community.  4) Feeling special and valued.    5)  Learning and practicing virtues.


There’s a lot of dialogue within the military community about the importance of building resiliency to overcome challenges.  My pedagogic philosophy is that we build resiliency by building character.   I firmly believe that virtues (such as courage or compassion) are the tools that we all need in order to face what life dishes out in a constructive, or resilient manner.  The more we focus and build upon virtues, the more resilient we become.  Our book and its Curricular Supplement reinforce this.  With that said, it also focuses on the importance of identifying and expressing emotions; helping Champs figure out how to handle these emotions; and how, when, and where to get help. 


We deliver the key messages mentioned earlier:  that it is a child’s right to ask for (and to receive) help.  S/he does not need to cope alone.  Champs are part of a community, and it is the responsibility of the adult community to provide the support, comfort, and guidance that our Champs need and deserve.  They can also learn to help themselves and to help each other.  Nonetheless, we adults need to claim responsibility to help them navigate through their military-connected challenges. 


CP3: You’ve traveled the globe sharing your support and program to Champs with the USO. Do you notice any differences between Champs located in the US versus those living in foreign soil?

DF: Absolutely.  I’ve had the honor of ‘edu-taining’ over 10,000 Champs during my USO tours to Europe and Asia.  I think the primary difference between our Champs residing overseas and our Champs in the US is that Champs overseas are all part of the DoDEA (Dept. of Defense Education Activity) school system.  Champs are the majority in these schools.  Their teachers and classmates understand what they’re going through.  The school system is structured to support them, recognizing the challenges they face.


Yet according to a principal of a school I visited on my 2011 USO Tour in Germany, over 90% of her Champs had a parent currently deployed in harm’s way.  So it is not uncommon that even when these Champs and families have been relocated across the world, the Servicemember is often deployed even further away.  Still, while living on foreign soil, Champs are among adults and children who understand what they’re going through, and seem to have more communal support.


In contrast, this is not the case in the US.  Champs in public schools often “feel their classmates and teachers don’t understand what they’re going through.”  More often than not, a Champ can go through a school day where people (including teachers) are entirely unaware that his/her parent serves our country; or that his/her parent is deployed; or that a parent has just come back and is dealing with PTSD or a Traumatic Brain Injury or other injuries or wounds; or that parents have grown apart and are discussing divorce; or that the child has just been told they would be PCSing (moving) again in a few month’s time . . . As a Nation, it is our Civic Duty to cultivate a more sensitive school climate and informed community here in the US. 


CP3: What are the key “take home” messages that civilian children discover? How do they gain a better appreciation for Champs and the military lifestyle?

DF: We had the pleasure of co-piloting a program alongside our cherished partner United Through Reading (UTR), at a public school in Fairfax County, VA.  One-third of the students were Champs; two-thirds were civilians.  Prior to our arrival, the Champs didn’t even know others were Champs!  So right there, a Champ support group was born.  UTR gave each student a copy of the book.  We played a video, recorded by UTR, of a deployed parent (in Afghanistan) reading the story to and with the children.  He spoke to/with the kids; for example, asking them to find Afghanistan on the map.  The children read along with him. 


Over the next few months, the fabulous educator piloted a few of the classroom extensions from our Operation CHAMPS Curricular Supplement.  We returned on Flag Day (June 14) to a classroom of children who had undergone a transformation individually and collectively from this experience. 


The Champs felt understood, appreciated, supported, and PROUD.  The civilians shared how much they had learned about military life, about military challenges, about their peers, about friendship.  They bonded over commonalities and celebrated differences.  The ensuing dialogue was remarkable.  The classroom’s bridge of understanding was built between its civilian and CHAMPS.  We continue to build this program out with UTR.


CP3: You have a strong group of supporters for this initiative! Who have you partnered with and what results have you seen? 

DF: Yes, our Alliance of strong and ever growing supporters for this initiative has been paramount!  For the book’s first printing, branding our “Statement of Support,” we had the following military-connected organizations:  The USO; United Through Reading; AUSA Family Programs; Military Child Education Coalition; Armed Services YMCA; American Red Cross; Operation Homefront; and National Military Family Association. As we head back to press, we are so pleased to add the following organizations to our Alliance:  Air Force Association; Navy League; Marine Corps League; Coast Guard Foundation; Blue Star Families; and our first non-military connected organization:  the National Association for Elementary School Principals (NAESP).



New Member

Truly ashamed that USAA is taking part in this sham!  The Finks are NOT military BRATS and never have been.  They have no idea what a BRAT life is like and yet they assume and publicize that they do know.    Worse yet is that USAA is supporting them, endorsing them and publicizing them!



Brat Researcher
New Member

What are the sources for the stats.  In fact, we have data from Booth et al (2007 update:  that Military children are rather well adjusted, particularly if the primary caregiver is in good mental health.  Given that that MWR was invovled in the report as were reputable military scholars out of Westpoint, and the Segal's from UMD's Military Sociology Department, I wonder what research Fink has uncovered that the DoD funded scholars have not.  


What civilians don't understand is that military children aren't "scared" by moving or any of the other aspects of military life because they don't know any different.  Growing up military is their life, it is their normal.  If anything, they think civilians are messed up from staying in one place.  You can't pathologize something that is "normal" for someone.  


In addition, military children are not "heroes."  They are children.  If you want to help them, petition congress to raise the salaries of military families such that they don't have to get food stamps to eat:


I do not know a single Brat who is NOT proud of our Brat distinction. It is a tradition that goes so far back and is a term of endearment to those of us who carry it. I come from a long line of military men and women, all of whom I consider heroes. I am so very proud of this. My Great Grandfather was military, my Grandfathers were military, My Dad was AF 24 yrs and my Mom was Army (4 yrs active and also reserve). I did not go in the military, however I married a military man. He was in the AF for 22 yrs, also now retired and we have 3 children, also Brats and very proud of the moniker. This is so very dear to our hearts because we, as Brats, do not consider ourselves heroes at all. For someone, especially someone who has not had personal experience with our experiences to decide that changing this moniker of ours to designate us as heroes cheapens the meaning of a hero. We know the difference between hero and supporter. Those who wear or have worn the uniform are heroes. However, if you ask them, they will likely only say "I am not a hero. I was only doing my job." For someone who has had no military affiliation to assume we want to be considered as heroes is so very insulting. Do not call me a hero; simply respect that I and my peers sacrificed and understood that sometimes those sacrifices were a bummer (like moving in the middle of a school year or not seeing your parent(s) for days, weeks and sometimes months on end) but in the grand scheme of things, these were small in comparison to what the servicemember sacrifices. In many cases they sacrificed the ultimate - their lives. While recognition of the military Brat is welcome, let us not confuse recognition with false accolades. You will find that Brats are quite adaptable and a very tough breed. You will find many who think their hero is their servicemember parent or parents, not Spiderman or Supergirl. They are grounded in the reality that everyone has a purpose, plays a part, adds to the mission to make sure it is successful. Not everyone is the pilot of a plane for good reason. The supporting crew is essential for a mission to be carried out and be successful. As a Brat, we support our families i.e. when times are tough and you can't get home because you live half a world away and Emergency Leave isn't an option. When new kids move to the community, you help them to adjust and adapt, as you know your time will come and you will be the newbie and need and appreciate a new friend or two. All of this in support of the servicemember as they integrate into their new job. This allows them the peace of mind to carry out THEIR most important job of protecting and defending our Constitution, in whatever capacity has been deemed necessary to fulfill the mission. Oftentimes, military communities are families and consider these communities and are closer to the members within than their own families. We have to be close, as many times our actual bloodline families are half a world away.This prevents alienation and allows the community to thrive and succeed. We use the term Brat quite respectfully. We use it to identify ourselves. I can walk into a room of 50 Brats I have never met in my life and automatically we will ALL have a connection that noone else shares. And it is not unheard of to have found a new friend. Only thing is, to us, it is not merely a new friend; it is like going to a family reunion and catching up with an extended family member. While my husband was in the military for 22 yrs he was never a Brat. He is quite intelligent and can understand what I mean when I say I went to 9 different schools growing up, lived in 4 states and 2 countries and that my best friend changed quite frequently - like every year, sometimes twice a year frequently. However, he can only sympathize; he cannot empathize. As we raise our children, our completely different upbringings have allowed our children to adapt well. I am proud that my husband is a strong father, fantastic role model and is one of the greatest men I know. To our children, he is a hero, as it should be. As for me, I am Mom but I have a deeper understanding of the realities they face as Brats because I am one. And trust me, you do not stop being a Brat because you no longer live with the servicemember of whom you are the dependent. I haven't lived at home for 20 yrs but I am still and will always be a Brat. I could speak for hours about this. The military - all branches - hold tradition very dear. This is a tradition within our military community. The bottom line is we are Brats and we are extremely proud of this. To belittle the real heroes by insisting Brats, child dependents, are heroes is absolutely revolting to the military Brat. We know the meaning of a hero. We also know we aren't heroes simply because we are children of servicemembers and we are absolutely fine with this. To insist that political correctness demand that the term Brat is derogatory and therefore socially unacceptable and intolerable or unmarketable is a slap in the face of ALL Brats. To allow someone who knows nothing of this life to rename us and strip us of our identity is appalling. This is akin to identity theft. Just ask any of the estimated 15 million military Brats in the US. They span generations. Thank you for your time. Very Respectfully, Vanya Malmstead Proud Air Force and Army Brat Proud Mother of 3 Air Force Brats
Occasional Contributor
To CHAZZPRATTUSAA: Thank you your response and your promise to find out more. The following is a quote from your response. "Like many military affiliated organizations, we are focused on supporting our military community. Our participation in this project was not an endorsement of a name change, but to support a positive message in helping civilian children better understand the challenges faced by their classmates from military families." Over 90% of school aged BRATS attend schools in the states. There are less than .01% school aged civilians attending DOD schools overseas. The Finks state there objective, USAA repeated it, as reaching out to school aged civilians to help them better understand the challenges of (and I am paraphrasing) military BRATS. Their actions say differently. Please research what percentage of their time and the money from their LLC are spent in civilian schools attended by BRATS? Not meant to be personal, but before USAA advocates for a cause, it would behoove the employees to do their homework. Sincerely, US Army BRAT since 1958 and USAA Member since 1982 (inherited both from my parents)
New Member

As this appears to be an attempt at an honorable cause, the idea that someone has trademarked a name  in order to sell books and travel the world (yes, even as a non-profit organisation, that is allowed) is quite disturbing, especially someone who has not lived the life.  For someone to pronounce that a a name be given (and trademarked!!) to replace a long given term is actually, a bit disgusting and cheesy.  I think there could perhaps be an underlying motive, given that someone actually went so far as to trademark a term (The Finks own it!!) that has nothing to do with reality (Heros?? Uh-huh!) and travel the world based on book sales, using what they think is an "endearing" term and supposedly more palatable which apparently, in context, is designed to make it appear as though military brats have some kind of "condition" and deserve special respect.  Military brats are people just like anyone else, but perhaps much more perceptive than the author beleives them to be.   The real hero's are the fathers and mothers who sacrificed their time in order to serve their country.  

To Whom It Concerns: The Military Child Education Coalition was also supporting Little CHAMPS and after careful review of information submitted to them have since rescinded their support. This is their response: An open letter to the BRATS community We hear you. After careful consideration, we are withdrawing our support from The Little Champs program. We endorsed the book because we believe it celebrated the strength of our children and encouraged growth after more than a decade of war. In 2011, we made a one-time purchase of 500 books, the balance of which will be removed from inventory and discarded at the end of the year. These books were never used as curriculum or training resources in any of our initiatives. MCEC never contributed to or sponsored the Little Champs tours. Teachers, Veterans, grown-up military kids, military spouses, parents of service members, and caring civilians make up the staff at MCEC. While we may not use the term “brat” in our literature, we understand and respect the importance of the name to those who grew up in a military family and the traditional pride associated with this term of endearment –many of our staff share that rich experience. This is an important dialog among people who care deeply about military families. This their Facebook page where the post can be found:
Mr. Pratt, The Military Child Education Coalition was also supporting Little CHAMPS and after careful review of information submitted to them have since rescinded their support. This is their response: An open letter to the BRATS community We hear you. After careful consideration, we are withdrawing our support from The Little Champs program. We endorsed the book because we believe it celebrated the strength of our children and encouraged growth after more than a decade of war. In 2011, we made a one-time purchase of 500 books, the balance of which will be removed from inventory and discarded at the end of the year. These books were never used as curriculum or training resources in any of our initiatives. MCEC never contributed to or sponsored the Little Champs tours. Teachers, Veterans, grown-up military kids, military spouses, parents of service members, and caring civilians make up the staff at MCEC. While we may not use the term “brat” in our literature, we understand and respect the importance of the name to those who grew up in a military family and the traditional pride associated with this term of endearment –many of our staff share that rich experience. This is an important dialog among people who care deeply about military families. This their Facebook page where the post can be found:
Frequent Visitor

I am a military brat of a 33 year veteran and married a serviceman and raised three wonderful BRATS. In this century my father, husband, and son have served over 58 years in the USAF. We have 10 people in my immediate family who are USAA members and the services we receive from USAA range from insurance to banking, to long term financial planning. We have stayed with USAA over the years because of the mutual loyalty and the assurance that USAA would put my military family's interest above outside interests and motivation. I am saddened and disappointed that despite the feedback from so many USAA memebers and military families, USAA has falied to retract their support from the Little CHAMPS program. To state that you suport the programming but do not endorse the name change is a cop out. The initiative is clear that the program is directed at supporting the military child, bridging them with the civilian world, AND in identifying them with the more pleasing acronym of CHAMPS. You are failing to respect our culture and our heritage. The Military Child Education Coalition just released a statement recognizing our concerns AND withdrawing their support from the CHAMPS program. I made a generous donation. USAA and I are a team. We work together to assure my financial and libility needs are met. Supporting the CHAMPS program is detrimental to our ongoing relationship. Please have a representative contact me through my messages with your response. Thank you - a very proud military BRAT

Occasional Visitor
I find it interesting that the education process has spent so much time overseas. We knew who we were when we lived overseas, and my children understood their identity overseas. The intentions were good but the name is simply dumb. I'm disappointed in USAA for supporting this organization. Why couldn't they have used the name BRATS? I think you are discovering BRATs are proud and not heroes; that was our parents.
Nancy Bunker  Bowen

I've been a USAA member since 1968--my father years before that--and my grown children are now also USAA members.  I am also one of the large and growing BRAT community that is appalled USAA did not vet the Fink women's boondoogle before offering "support."  Sure, they're smooth talkers--how could USAA not "support" any group that pledges to support military families?--but did USAA not notice that part of their grand scheme was to re-brand BRATs into something they call CHAMPs? Surely this self-serving acronym (trademarked by themselves, of  course,  likely by the family's very own in-house patent attorney) was a red flag to USAA public relations people?  You do realize your demographics, don't you?


Look at the uproar this CHAMPs idea has raised!  Why USAA would wish to continue to be associated with these two women and their bogus moneymaking gimmick is beyond me.


Other groups who were initially taken in by the Finks have now been made aware of their error in judgement and have withdrawn support, tacit or otherwise.  It's time you do, too.


Nancy Bunker Bowen

Proud Air Force Brat since 1949