Our second group of writers will be blogging about Women and War. Journalists, experts, female soldiers and veterans share their experiences and discuss issues including women in combat, sexual assault in the military and inadequate benefits for female veterans. What do you think about women in the military? Share your thoughts, raise a question and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
Before I was a mother, I could work until 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening, then head off to college courses until 10:00. I could come in early and work until the mission was complete. I could make permanent change of station (PCS) to anywhere and all I was concerned about was asking the army to station me with my husband.
When I became a mom, all these things changed. The late nights are gone now because daycare closes at 6:00; count in traffic, and I have to leave work no later than 5:30. The ability to pack up and move anywhere must now revolve around the school year. My decision to continue to serve is tempered by my desire to see my daughters, and be the one who raises them.
Thankfully, I have never had to decide between staying in the military or giving up my children. But not all military mothers are as lucky.
It is estimated that nearly 30,000 single mothers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan1. As more and more single and divorced parents serve in the military, there are a growing number of military members, often single or divorced mothers, who face court battles to retain or regain custody of their children upon redeployment.
Women who serve face many of the same challenges that all working mothers do. These challenges include trying to balance work and home, taking sick days because a child has a fever, and the fighting the unending perception that because we work, we are somehow shortchanging our children or that we are less than devoted mothers. But there is a harsher reality that military mothers face which most civilian mothers cannot comprehend unless they are in law enforcement or another similar field.
Since returning home, I've run the gamut of emotions — from guilt for having left my daughters for so long, to anger that my oldest won't eat, to incredulity at how big they are now, and back to guilt, for wanting just a few minutes alone. How could I want time away from them when I just got home? The mommy guilt eats at me and drives me to try and become better, to make events memorable because the day may come when I deploy and don't come back. The memories I want my daughters to remember are not of me griping about them cleaning their room.
Military mothers not only balance work and home, but must also face the fact that by remaining in the military, we may never see our sons and daughters again. All parents realize that they might someday die, but before each mother deploys, she must make all the final preparations in case she doesn't come home. For military mothers, this reality makes the struggles of reintegration and the heartbreak of deployment that much harder.
Bias Against Military Moms
In the courts, military moms have an even tougher time than civilian working mothers. Some argue that working mothers shortchange their children; military mothers are required to make even greater sacrifices than their civilian counterparts. Very rarely is the civilian working mom asked to leave her children for a year at a time. Very rarely is the civilian working mom confronted with the knowledge that when she comes home at the end of a deployment, her child will not know her.
So while civilian moms do find their "choice" to work invoked in child custody debates, civilian moms are usually at least present to defend their cases, not a thousand miles away in a war zone wondering how a judge could deem her an unfit parent and take her children from her. On the flip side, fathers are not thought less of or punished because they desire to wear a uniform after becoming a parent. Mothers should not endure this, either. Yet military mothers are punished for serving our nation. (I should point out that many single fathers are punished for this as well.)
That the courts would look at a mother or father's military service as detrimental to the well-being of the child surprises me. To find courts taking custody away from mothers who serve shocks me. One of my best friends nearly lost joint custody of her children because she was single and her ex-husband had remarried. The judge's argument was that her children were better off with someone who was not their mother than with a woman who has deployed three times in support of our nation. My friend was able to regain custody of her children, but only after a lengthy court battle and nearly being separated from the military because of her lack of a Family Care Plan.
No parent should be forced to choose between the military and his or her children. For thousands of single mothers, being in the military allows them to provide for their children in a way that they would not be able to do otherwise. Despite the long hours, many single parents continue to serve because of better school opportunities, healthcare, and a community they might not have if they were to leave the military.
Losing Custody in Civilian Courts
The Army requires that single parents and dual military couples have what's known as a Family Care Plan. The plan tells the military what arrangements service members have made to provide for their children in their absence. Unlike in the civilian world, the Army needs to know this information. Should you have to ship out on short notice, the Army is not going to be able to wait around for you to drop your kids off somewhere. The Family Care Plan tells the Army that you are able to fulfill your duties.
The Family Care Plan is not a court order, which means it is not legally binding for a civilian. That means that should a service member leave their children with an ex-spouse, the ex can sue for custody2. If the service member is thousands of miles away working 12-18 hour days with limited communications, then it would very difficult for the service member to fight a court battle, which puts the service member at a distinct disadvantage. Throw in a court system that sometimes treats a military mom's service as akin to abandonment of her children, and it is no wonder that military mothers are losing custody.
The only way for a parent in the military to back is to go through a civilian court system that might not be near the military base to which the soldier returns. The financial stress, the limited ability of the military legal system to help navigate family courts thousands of miles away, and the uncertain support of the chain of command places an undue burden on a soldier who volunteered to fight our nation's wars.
Custody Battles Across State Lines
In cases of divorce where joint custody is awarded, judges often mandate that in the case of deployment, the children will be left with the other spouse. But many soldiers deploy and find that in their absence, things have changed dramatically. Deployed mothers have received legal notices mandating child support increases, changes in custody, and in some cases, outright refusal by the custodial parent to allow the returning soldier to see their children.
A 2009 New York Times article relays the case of Specialist (SPC) Leydi Mendoza, who was ordered by the courts to leave her daughter with her former partner, Daniel Linares, when she deployed. When she returned, Linares refused to allow her to see her daughter, who was then not quite 2 years old. Because their daughter, Elizabeth, did not know her mother and was extremely upset at having to spend time with a virtual stranger, Linares was able to argue in court that exposing Elizabeth to SPC Mendoza was traumatic, and Mendoza should not regain custody of the girl3. Eventually, the court awarded SPC Mendoza daily visitation and weekly sleepovers with her daughter4.
I also went through the emotional fallout of coming home to a baby who did not know me. My soul was torn out repeatedly as she crawled after my mom, calling her "mama" instead of me. When my baby cried, she wanted my mom. I stood by, helpless and heartbroken, unable to soothe her hurts. At the time, the pain was nearly unbearable, enough to make me reconsider staying in the military. But as hard as that was to go through, my daughter is very much attached to me now, and I have stayed in the military. So while I understand Daniel Linares' motivation in trying to protect his crying daughter, taking the child away from her mother is not the answer.
In another case relayed on NPR, Tanya Towne, a member of the National Guard, returned to New York from Iraq only to be told that her 12-year-old son had moved to Virginia with her ex-husband Richard Diffin, and that Diffin now had permanent custody of the child. Because Diffin had moved to another state and gotten a judge to agree that military service was highly disruptive and unstable, Towne lost custody. Neither New York State nor the military were able to help her regain custody. She spent over $6,000 and countless hours traveling in an attempt to get her son back, but failed. Her ex-husband's lawyer had argued that Tanya Towne chose to be a soldier, and that leaving her children for military service is no way for a mother to act5.
Lack of Federal Legislation
Army-wide statistics are not available on mothers losing custody of their children because the Army does not track these cases. And unless both parents are service members, the military justice system is unable to effectively engage in mediation on behalf of mothers who are fighting court battles to regain custody of their kids. Divorce affects military women at three times the rate of military men. As a result, there may be a very high number of military mothers who lose custody of their kids in civilian courts.
This issue is not one that is limited to military mothers. Military fathers have been going through custody battles seemingly forever, but the outrage over mothers losing their children certainly garners more public scrutiny. It is not fair that mothers who lose their children receive more attention, but perhaps this is one case where the attention can be cause for change that positively impacts everyone. Parents who choose to serve in the military are dedicated, both to their families and to the military. Someone with that amount of dedication and willingness to sacrifice time should not be punished. Their ability to parent should not be based solely on availability.
The Soldier and Sailor Relief Act of 2003 focuses on protecting soldiers against credit card debt, job loss and loan repayment. Unfortunately, it is woefully inadequate in protecting soldiers' custody of their children, which is by and large left up to state laws. The result is that military moms who are fighting for custody are largely on their own.
Federal action is long overdue to protect a soldier's family while he or she is deployed. This is not something that just military mothers have to face. This is a readiness issue, because parents will do a better job while they are deployed if they know they still have a family to come home to.
Mothers who serve should not be punished for serving. Military service should never be used as the sole decision in custody arrangements.
1. Aaron Glantz, "30,000 Single Mothers Deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan." The Huffington Post, October 15, 2009.
2. Wilson, Elaine. "Care Plan To Encompass More Military Families." American Forces Press Services, March 15, 2010.
3. David Kocieniewski, "A Soldier's Service Leads to a Custody Battle at Home." The New York Times, August 31, 2009.
4. David Kocieniewski, "Family Court Gives Soldier Visitation in Custody Case." The New York Times, September 1, 2009.
5. Brian Mann, "Soldiers Loses Custody of Child After Tour in Iraq." Morning Edition, NPR, February 14, 2008.
Army First Lieutenant and Author
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