ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Acknowledging the burdens and sacrifices of military dependents is a daily concern for Team Robins’ Col. Jim Coughlin, 5th Combat Communications Group commander, and his wife Erin Coughlin.
The pair are parents of nine children: Zachary, Caleb, Joshua, Eli, Thomas, Andrew, Lily, Rachel and Sarah, all ranging from 19 down to 2 years of age.
“We made it a priority that when I walk through the door I’m Dad and not a duty title,” said Jim Coughlin. “The Air Force may have given me a lot of duty titles, but I still believe ‘Dad’ is by far the most important. I often say it’s the best duty title I will ever have.”
Part of being a military kid is having to deal with permanent changes of station. Since the year 2000, the Coughlin family has moved 16 times.
Inside their temporary home, the college sweethearts smiled at one another as they jointly worked to recall their military moves.
“Lily was born in Mississippi and then we moved to Virginia, California, South Carolina, and here (Georgia). So, she has lived in five states and she is just 6 years old,” said Erin Coughlin, who is also an Air Force veteran herself. “Rachel was born in Virginia. She’s moved four times and will be four years old in June.”
According to the Department of Defense Education Activity school system, the average child in a military family will move six to nine times during a school career. That’s an average of three times more frequently than non-military families.
Service families must deal with the same everyday concerns of running a household, children in school, extended family matters, along with the highs and lows of parenting, all while being regularly uprooted or handling separation because of deployments and temporary duty assignments.
The constant changes can come with an emotional toll.
“What we’ve seen with all of our children is how the older boys see my career versus the littles,” said Jim. “While stationed in Hawaii, I was really doing my heavy deployments. I was home one week a month for over three years. It got to a point that when we drove by the Honolulu airport the older boys would cry because they thought I was about to leave them again. I was gone a lot and Zack grew up faster than he needed to.”
Zack is now away from his family. He is a sophomore at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. The aspiring physical therapist admits he embraced the life of frequent moves and regularly being the new kid in class.
“I’ve preferred the world experience of living all over the United States. I’m not a shy person; I’m pretty outgoing. Whenever I go somewhere new I just jump in,” laughed Zack. “Moving definitely strengthened my bond with my siblings. When you move to a new place the one constant is your family. You have that support and built-in friendships.”
But dealing with the nomadic-like lifestyle is becoming a challenge for one of his younger brothers.
“You’re just trying to survive. Whether you like it at the next place or not you don’t get a choice,” said Joshua with a tinge of frustration. “You continuously have to adapt and make new friends. But I do have my family. The fun is getting to visit places most people may never get to see in their lives, like the Grand Canyon, The White House or Carlsbad Caverns.”
Joshua’s unhappiness has not gone unnoticed.
“He has probably had it the hardest these past 18 months because he had some really close friends in California, where we were there for two years,” Erin Coughlin explained. “Then we had to move to a rural town in South Carolina. They were homeschooled there and then the pandemic hit. Joshua is the typical 15 year old right now. It’s not ideal, but he is holding his head up high.”
And Zack is doing his part to help Joshua navigate through this trying time.
“I like to do what I can to make him happy when I am home. He likes to be outside, so we will spend time doing whatever. I just think it’s important for him and my other siblings to feel safe and welcomed at home. I believe that will give them confidence away from home.”
Eli soldiers on by finding enjoyment in the little things.
“California was my favorite of where we lived. I liked the earthquake shakes there. I wasn’t scared,” he said with a smile. “I do try not to get so upset about moving and try to remember the good times we do have, and look forward to the new times we will have.”
As for the other six siblings, life is full and moving forward. Caleb is about to graduate high school and aspires to become a screen writer. His younger brothers, Andrew and Thomas, enjoy playing video games and building legos when they’re not studying their favorite subjects of math and reading. The youngest children of the family, Lily, Rachel and Sarah, take pleasure in reading books and playing their educational games on the tablet.
The family business
Jim and Erin Coughlin will celebrate 21 years of marriage in June. The two were no strangers to the military world when they met while attending Louisiana State University in 1997.
Though both of their fathers served in the Air Force, they each had different perspectives of the military.
Early on, Jim Coughlin, the third oldest of seven children, experienced multiple moves through fourth grade.
“I was born in Warner Robins and left here at 6 months old. Being in the Air Force is the only thing I know from birth until now. This is literally the family business,” said Jim. “I did JROTC in high school and ROTC in college. In some part, I started putting on a version of the Air Force uniform since 1991. I wanted to be of service to my country.”
As for Erin Coughlin, she never moved.
“I was the youngest of nine kids and my dad had been retired four years when I was born. I was the only one who took on a military career, too. I think that’s because my dad had time to share his experiences with me and it made me very interested,” said Erin. “I was in ROTC, active duty for six years and in the reserves for seven years.”
Besides coming from large families, the pair had something else in common, their Catholic faith. And it is that foundation that serves as strength and guidance for their family.
“My faith keeps me going,” said Erin Coughlin. “We have trying times. I remember the moving started getting to me about three or four moves ago. I was starting to have to put on a brave face because of so many years of packing and unpacking. That monotony was getting to me. So there were some good days and bad days. I prayed for strength for all of us.”
The Department of Defense reports there are currently 1.2 million military children of active duty members worldwide. Of that number, 400,000 are dependents of Airmen.
In 1986, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinbeger was responsible for establishing April as Month of the Military Child to thank and bring awareness to the service these children make to this nation.
Thirty-five years later, the strong community support continues.
Robins held multiple events throughout the month to recognize the youngest supporters of the warfighter. There were parades, a garden dedication, events at the base youth center and ‘Purple Up’ Day where people on the installation wear purple in the children’s honor.
“There are benefits to serving, but it comes at a price,” said Jim Coughlin. “When we moved here, our son Josh said I don’t even know why you are bothering to unbox my stuff. We are just going to move again.”
Jim Coughlin said moving to Robins was a great opportunity for his career, and he hoped the two year assignment would bring some welcomed stability. However, Mother Nature shook things up.
“Shortly after we got here, lightening literally struck our home and we lost everything,” said Jim Coughlin. “This was supposed to be a stability assignment after move upon move, upon move, upon move. Plus, we had the tragedies of losing Erin’s dad and my mom within six months of each other. And my mom lived with us. Our kids are great. They are resilient, but I am tired of them having to prove they are super resilient. There’s a limit.”
Soon, the Coughlin family will move back into the rebuilt house, which was destroyed by fire. It will be their home for the next 13 months.
“At some point in this calendar year, we will find out the next assignment, and I will start planning and getting them geared up for our next adventure and journey,” said Erin Coughlin. “Whenever there is some discontent about Jim’s military career, I remind them of our Catholic studies about vocation. This is your Dad’s vocation not yours. We are not asking you to like it, but at least be supportive and respectful of Dad’s calling to serve our country.”
And Zack offers the following advice to military kids everywhere.
“Yes, it can be hard living this life, and you’re never going to receive the full recognition of the sacrifice you’re making, but try to be there for your parents,” he said. “From what I have seen with both of my parents, whenever they see us happy they feel more fulfilled. They’re trying to provide for us and serve our country at the same time. In everything they are doing, it’s for us to be safe and happy at home and in the world.”