POV Regarding War


Mothers in the Military: Reconciling Being a Mother with Being a Soldier

written by Helen Benedict
on April 27, 2010

When Sergeant Terris Dewalt-Johnson* was on the airplane to Iraq for her first tour in 2005, the young soldiers around her began joking about going to war.

"To me this isn't a game," she told them angrily. "I have four kids who will have no understanding if I'm killed. Nobody, the president or anybody, can make a child understand 'Your mother died for your country, she was a good soldier, she fought well.' All they'll know is they no longer have a mother. If I'm killed, they're gonna hate their president and the U.S. government for the rest of their lives.'"

Not long after arriving in Iraq, Terris, who, at 35, had been in the army for 14 years, was appointed Convoy Commander, leading a string of trucks along some of Iraq's most lethal highways, often at night. She suffered bomb attacks and accidents, narrowly escaping being blown up several times. She chose not to tell this fact to her husband or kids.

Like many troopers, Terris took solace from the Iraqi children, who would surround her convoy begging for food and drink. Yet the sight of these children made her yearn for her own. She wrote emails to them and called home every other day, but she missed them painfully. Then she got an email from her 10-year-old son.

"Mommy, love you. Happy Mother's Day. Wish you were here. Hope you don't get killed in Iraq. Okay, bye."

"My youngest don't beat around the bush," Terris said, smiling sadly. "But oh my goodness, that got to me."

The difficulties of being a parent and a soldier are a pressing issue in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, exacerbated by the length and repetition of deployments, and by the high numbers of reservists and National Guard members: in 2008, over 760,000 parents were deployed in Iraq alone.1 It hurts to call home and hear a little voice say, "Mommy, please come back," when you can't. And it's agony to think about what will happen to your children if you are maimed or killed.

These worries are especially tough on single parents, who make up some 74,000 of regular troops and at least 68,000 of the Guard and reserves. Because parent soldiers have to deploy if they have anyone at all to care for the child, parents must sometimes leave their children in fraught and uncertain circumstances, which worries them constantly while they are away. And they are right to worry. The rates of child neglect and maltreatment double while parents are on active duty.2

Terris's children wrote begging her to come home, and at last, she was allowed to for Christmas. But her visit was not all she had hoped. During a quarrel with her sister over dinner, Terris lost her temper, leapt to her feet, and grabbed her sister's head. She was about to flip her onto the ground, using a hold she'd learned in training, when she noticed her children and nieces staring in shock. That stopped her. It was one of several horrifying moments when she realized how brutalized she'd become by war.

Soon she was back in Iraq, driving yet more dangerous convoys, enduring yet more attacks. By the time her tour was finally over in April 2006, she had spent an entire year as a combat soldier. Now she had to put that behind her and be a wife and mother again.

"You'd think because you're home you should be comfortable and fit right in, but when I got home, it wasn't like that. My mind was in Iraq. I couldn't tolerate being startled. And it just burned me up when my husband complained about stuff. It seemed so small compared to Iraq." Terris was also annoyed that her husband seemed to have taken over her role as parent. "The kids kept asking their dad for stuff instead of me. I had to tell them, 'Hey, it's okay to ask me, too!'"

Soldier parents often feel pushed aside when they come home. Their children are hurt and distrustful after their absence, and the family has learned to function without them, so the soldiers must win everyone back with patience, love and gentleness, the very attributes that have been beaten out of them by training and war. Women in particular struggle with this because mothers are expected to be so close to their children. As hard as it is to leave your children behind, coming back too numbed by war to feel part of the family, or even to love your children as you once did, is unbearable.

Terris didn't realize how much she had changed, though, until she read a blog her husband wrote about her. "It was like the military had done something to her mentally.... She wasn't the same person she was when she left, she seemed to be stressed and moody, like she had a lot on her mind and she didn't want to be bothered."

Terris was shocked. "Whoa, I'm like that?" she asked him. And he responded, "Yeah."

It was true. As much as she tried to be her old self, she couldn't shake her tough military persona or her thoughts of Iraq. And it didn't help that she had to make an agonizing decision: whether to re-enlist and serve out her full 20-year contract, risking another deployment to a war she had ceased to believe in; or leave the Army altogether and forfeit all the benefits she had earned in her 16-year career.

In the end, she chose to re-enlist, driven by economic necessity. She switched from her old company to a Garrison Support Unit, hoping to avoid the war. "I'll be sent to a U.S. base somewhere not too far away, I hope," she told me. "So I'll get home sometimes and see the kids."

By then the trauma had set in. She couldn't even glimpse the news without having an anxiety attack. Her head and back wouldn't stop aching from an accident she'd had in a convoy. And her knees were in pain from jumping off high vehicles while loaded down with heavy guns and armor. She went to the VA for treatment, where, to her shock, she was also diagnosed with depression and PTSD. She was sent to group therapy twice a week and put on Prozac, thus joining the legions of Iraq war veterans now getting through life on drugs.

Then, on September 12, 2007, her worst fears came true: her unit was put on alert for deployment to Baghdad. She had been caught up in the surge.

"This really bothers me," she wrote to me in quiet understatement. "My oldest son is a senior this year and if I'm called to leave I may miss his graduation and prom like I did with my daughter."

At the end of her message, she had typed a little face, its mouth turned down in sadness.

In December 2009, Terris was sent back to Iraq. She still is there, along with thousands of other parents, missing their children, and being missed.

* Names have been changed to protect Terris's identity, as she is still on active duty.

1. Department of Defense Database, "Number of Service Members by Service, Child Status and Gender," Nov. 2007.

2. Ewen MacAskill, "Pressure on Bush to help military families fighting on two fronts, The Guardian (UK), May 8, 2007, 17.
"Kids of deployed U.S. soldiers at risk," United Press International, 2007.

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