Military Families Struggle on the Home Front

Newsweek, Nov. 1, 1990
Assignment: The deployment of troops in the Gulf War exposed gaps in the archaic procedures used by the U.S. Army to handle child care in military families. Newsweek's editors wanted a front-line view.

At home last month in Rohnert Park, Calif., Mary Wax found herself fighting one of the U.S. Army's toughest battles. Her opponents: six upset children, among them two nieces and a nephew recently arrived from Ft. Benning, Ga. Four of the kids were under age 3; one was only six months old. The visiting children were her sister's, and they were traumatized by their sudden separation from Mom. Before going to bed, they promised to be good and begged for their aunt to let them go home. Wax's own children, slightly older, felt neglected and resented the newcomers. There were frequent post-breakfast brawls.

"At first I thought 'OK, I can handle this,' says Wax. "Both my husband and I have enough room and love and support. But the big problem was that my sister's kids were pining for her and cried constantly, and my kids were crying for me."

Back at Ft. Benning, things weren't much better. Sgt. Lori Moore, Wax's 26-year-old sister, had packed the kids off to California for an indefinite stay because she'd been notified that her unit would be sent to the Persian Gulf. Her husband, Fred, 27, wasn't slated for deployment, but he's a drill sergeant who often must work irregular hours, frequently from 3:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. or later. The couple didn't see any way for him to care for the kids alone.

The three children had departed on Saturday morning, Sept. 15. "I was overwhelmed with this feeling like 'What am I doing as a Mom? I'm breaking up my family for my career!'," recalls Moore, a personnel administrator. "I never felt so emotionally devastated in my life." After three weeks of transcontinental phone calls -- the Moores' long-distance bill this month is $220 -- she knew it was a mistake.

"We reached a breaking point," sighs Wax. "My sister wanted her babies back, and I just couldn't handle their emotions." Says Moore: "It's hard to explain to 3-year-olds what's going on. It was a mess."

It's a mess that's may well overwhelm other military families as the stalemate in Saudi Arabia continues. Since the early '80s, all branches of the armed services have required that "deployable" soldiers who are single parents or are married to other soldiers submit "family-care plans," documents that formally designate both permanent and temporary guardians of their children in case of absence or death. According to the Department of Defense, 65,000 soldiers -- mostly men -- are single parents, and even more live in two-soldier families.

Until the deployment to the Gulf, family-care plans were generally routine matters. In essence, the military seeks to insure that children will not encumber its troop movements, and so parents usually sign statements certifying that they have taken care of custody arrangements and are available for worldwide assignment when necessary. The onus for making sure that the care plan is viable rests entirely on the soldiers' shoulders, but in peacetime the commitments aren't likely to be severely tested. Military parents seldom are absent from home longer than a couple of weeks for, say, maneuvers or special instruction.

But for some military parents, the sudden Gulf crisis is straining family relationships and highlighting what seem to be competing duties to country and family. During almost seven years in the service, Moore, for instance, won a slew of awards, including her battalion's Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year citation; all she'd ever wanted was an Army job. But after three weeks without her children, Moore felt she had to choose between career and family. She told Wax to bring the kids back and applied for a hardship discharge as her unit prepared to leave for Saudi Arabia.

After considerable wrangling, including documentation of her sister's bad back and the fact that Fred's mother -- who had been designated permanent guardian on the family-care plan -- had contracted bursitis, the Army slapped Moore with a "general discharge under honorable conditions." It's less prestigious than it sounds: soldiers who test positive for drug use, for instance, may be similarly discharged.

Outraged, Moore has appealed the decision, and her case is scheduled for a hearing next Tuesday. "Having a general discharge is a stigma," she says heatedly. "I didn't put in seven years of service -- completely self-less service -- for this." Her commander blamed her for an unviable family-care plan, but Moore cannot understand what the Army would have her do. She's unwilling to abandon her children, as she sees it; and even if she were willing, it would be unfair to demand that her sister or in-laws accept the responsibility. And while the two sisters are very close, Wax too isn't sure that she and her husband Joseph, a 33-year-old computer engineer, should have to sacrifice so enormously -- six kids, 24 hours a day -- for the career Moore has chosen. Even if it is the U.S. Army.

Says Wax: "I don't know a lot about Army life, but I know my sister has served to the best of her ability. The Army should have supported her. She trusted them, and they let her down."

Moore's extended family is not the only one feeling the pressure of Army expectations. Last April, Sgt. Terrie Cortez, a 31-year-old legal clerk at Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., gave birth to her first child, daughter Courtney. In August, shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Cortez was told that both she and her husband, also a sergeant on the base, should prepare for deployment overseas.

Cortez called her parents, Lyman and Ruby Brooks of Paragould, Ark., and asked them to come to Fayetteville to care for Courtney. But Lyman, 67, had recently discovered that he needed heart surgery and had been ordered to bed, while Ruby, 58, suffered controlled diabetes. The Brookses nonetheless arrived in mid-August, but Cortez realized they could not care for her new baby and, citing her father's failing health, applied for a hardship discharge.

Underscoring the urgency of the request, Ruby Brooks suffered a sudden heart attack on Sept. 15, the day after the discharge paperwork was filed. She was hospitalized for ten days and released. Cortez took a week's emergency leave, but the day she returned to Ft. Bragg, officials told the sergeant she'd be leaving for Saudi Arabia in 48 hours. Cortez replied that she still wanted the hardship discharge, now more than ever, but officers pointed out that her family-care plan designated a sister in Arkansas as the permanent guardian, not her mother.

Cortez and her husband, who still has not been deployed, had believed that a permanent guardian would only have to take care of their child if they were killed; her supervisors said that was never the case. But Cortez's sister, also in tiny Paragould, has two small children and a mind of her own: she is not willing to take on a new infant simply because of the Cortezes' deployment. And Cortez finds herself unwilling to leave a new baby with anyone, even her sister. "It would have broken my heart if I were to come back from Saudi Arabia and my daughter didn't recognize me," she says. Two weeks ago, her commander faulted her for a family-care plan that didn't work and handed her a general discharge like Moore's.

Cortez accepted the discharge because she was afraid of being deployed with her unit, but afterward she contacted U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford's office for help in getting the designation changed. If that fails, Cortez says she will hire a lawyer and appeal.

"I'm not bitter, but I want this rectified," she says. "I want an honorable discharge. I want what I worked for. I didn't join the Army to get kicked out without an honorable discharge."

Her mother can't understand the Army's position -- why should a civilian have to take custody of a child or see a relative demoted? "I came here with the intent of taking care of the baby, but I just can't do it," says a weak Ruby Brooks. "I still have chest pains. I was given instructions not even to lift her."

Both cases raise some difficult questions about military policy and the family. According to Gail McGinn, director of the DOD's Office of Family Policy and Support, current deployment regulations make no distinction between military parents with infants and those with older children -- both groups are expected to find surrogates when necessary, although caring for an infant during the early formative months is clearly a different proposition than caring for a self-reliant 10-year-old. Both Moore's and Cortez's conflicts have much to do with the fact that their children are so young.

Too, in this sort of situation even older children will need care beyond what an average substitute parent may be prepared to provide. Says Frederic Medway, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied military families and the effects of separation: "These children are going to have problems. Obviously, loneliness is the primary reaction. After that may come anxiety expressing itself in nervousness and irritability. Sometimes there may be stress-related disorders -- sleeping and eating difficulties, headaches, and so forth. School performance may suffer. The person who takes on that responsibility has to be better than the average parent."

Another issue: why shouldn't the military help pay for foster care deemed necessary, instead of relying on the fortunes of civilian relatives? The Moores, for instance, had agreed to pay the Waxes an additional $900 a month for the care of their three children. That money was their own.

It all makes Lori Moore wonder whether women really should be on the front lines at all, an assumption by which she's lived her life until now. "I've been through some political changes," she says. "I never in my life thought I'd be saying this -- I was in that generation raised to have a career -- but I'm really not sure what American women are doing here is right. We can perform these jobs and we have proven ourselves, but we need to take part in raising kids, too. I'm beginning to question whether this is where the women's movement should draw the line.

"I love this country, but if we follow in the footsteps of the armed forces, it will mean more breakdown of the family. And what happens this time if all these kids lose Moms and Dads?"

Says Medway: "The nature of the military family is different now. Many women have been deployed, and even many who are staying home are working full-time. There are a lot of women feeling overwhelmed."

And not just women. Earlier this month, Staff Sgt. Faagalo Savaiki, 42, was bound over to a grand jury in Tennessee on three misdemeanor child-neglect charges after authorities discovered his children -- two sons ages 13 and 10, and a 12-year-old daughter -- alone and without food in their Clarkesville home. Savaiki had been deployed from Ft. Campbell, Ky., to the Gulf a week earlier, then granted permission to visit his ill mother in American Samoa (she has since died). According to defense attorney Tommy Meeks, Savaiki read of his children's plight in a Samoan newspaper and turned himself in to authorities. Meeks says that Savaiki had been under the impression that his ex-wife, who lives in Hawaii, would be flying in to take care of the children shortly after he left and was astonished to discover that she had not. A grand jury will decide whether to try Savaiki next week.

Says Meeks: "The ultimate irony is that if they are successful in prosecuting him for neglect, the children will suffer the most of all."

Moore can't stop thinking of how her six-month-old daughter failed to recognize her when she came back from California. The baby howled in her arms, stopping only when Moore handed her to her sister.

"You know, when single soldiers leave, the Army covers over their cars with barbed wire and leaves them in the motor pool until they get back," says Moore. "I think that's what they want you to do with your kids."

Military Families in Trouble