Sgt. Karyn Obey and son Christopher

(WOMENSENEWS)–U.S. Army Capt. Wendy Bernard, in the middle of a one-year deployment in Iraq, came home for two weeks’ leave in the summer of 2004 to find that her year-old daughter, Clark, wouldn’t speak to her after six months of separation.

"By the time she warmed up to me, it was time to go again," Bernard said. She returned to Iraq, staying until January 2005 while her husband, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Matthew Atkinson, took care of Clark and their 13-year-old son Blake at home in New York.

Extended deployments and abbreviated family leaves are among the difficulties probed by a May 11 congressional report by the Joint Economic Committee on the difficulties of deployed mothers, who typically are young parents with lower incomes.

"I think that all mothers face challenges, but military moms have the added burden of longer deployments and longer separations from their children," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who released the report with Sen. Charles Schumer.

Women represent 1 in 7 military personnel in Iraq, and 38 percent of active-duty women are mothers.

Mothers in active duty have been at the center of a controversial debate since women joined the armed forces in support positions in 1901, stirring ideological battles over how the mother-child bond affects women’s right to equal work, pay and rank.

But the study, "Helping Military Moms Balance Family and Longer Deployments," accepts that women with children are in the armed forces and focuses on practical and procedural matters: the availability of high-quality child care, the length of leaves of absence and access to mental health services.

Nearly half of active-duty women are in the lower pay grades–earning between $14,436 and $24,744–and more than half of soldiers with children became parents between 20 and 25 years old.

Scramble for Child Care

Capt. Wendy Bernard poses with Iraqi boy while on duty.

For many, word of a deployment can mean a scramble for child care because, while military bases have substantial day care systems, not all children remain on the base after a deployment.

At least 230,000 children have a parent stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa, according to the report. Among these, the military estimates it lacks 35,000 spots in its day care program for children whose parents are deployed abroad.

Army equipment parts clerk and single mom U.S. Army Sgt. Karyn Obey decided to move 2-year-old Christopher to live with her parents in New York when she deployed to Afghanistan.

Before she left, she and Christopher’s father, who had just been posted to a Washington state military base, cobbled the money together for his $685-per-month New York day care bill. Each parent contributed $500 a month for Christopher’s food, clothes, and piano and karate lessons.

Obey flew to Afghanistan on her son’s third birthday for a year-long deployment.

"I’d never been separated from him before," Obey said. "To be at the flight line, looking at this plane, and to know that today’s my son’s special day and I’m about to go on this plane instead of being with him and blowing out his candles; that tore me up for a long time."

The report recommends expanding child care services to meet upcoming deployment needs, extending family leave periods after child birth and adoption and setting aside resources for mental health services to assist mothers before and after deployments.

Maloney expects them to be implemented within the decade.

Risk of Losing Female Soldiers

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, which evaluates government programs and expenditures, will release another report on June 21 about work-and-family balance. If resources for military mothers do not improve, Maloney says, the military will lose female soldiers.

Obey, who recently re-enlisted for six more years, said the Army was a way to pay off student loans, fix her credit and earn a master’s degree in public administration.

For Bernard, who left her native Jamaica at age 16 to pursue an education in the United States, joining the military was a way to give back for the opportunities she received.

"A lot of people say to me, ‘How could you do it? How could you?’" Bernard said. "And for me, I say, ‘How could you not?’"

Deployment can be particularly difficult for mothers: 64 percent of women with children experience emotional health problems after deployment, compared to 39 percent of women without children, according to the congressional report.

"Sometimes the only thing you can do is go to bed sobbing yourselves to sleep," said Bernard, who missed her daughter’s first steps and words. "Sometimes you have to be completely strong and not think about your own issues."

The Internet allowed Bernard to monitor her teen son’s homework and receive photos of her daughter in amusing outfits chosen by her husband. Obey depended on weekly phone calls and packages to speak with her son Christopher, who was too young to understand why she left home.

"That crushed me," Obey said. "That broke me. I had no choice but to say, ‘It’s not that you’re a bad boy; it’s just that mommy’s working.’"

The Department of Defense implemented new Web restrictions May 14 that prohibit soldiers’ access to MySpace and YouTube, sites commonly used to share messages, photos and video with family and friends. The restrictions are intended to free up the military’s network space and increase connection speed.

Disrupting Parental Relationship

After returning from deployment, women report a decline in emotional health and well-being that affects relationships with their children, according to the report.

"I was kind of freaked out by him," says Obey about returning to Christopher, who turned 4 in her absence. "He had grown so much and become so independent; it kind of made me feel like I had been replaced."

When Obey returned in March 2007, she stayed with her parents and Christopher before returning with her son to North Carolina, where she lives now and was stationed before deploying.

One day, just after she returned, her parents left her alone with her son for four hours. When they came home, she cried. She said she felt he had become a different child.

Her nerves were fragile, Obey said. She felt she was too quick to snap at Christopher, and she couldn’t get used to not carrying the 4-pound gun she was required to have with her at all times in Afghanistan. She woke from nightmares during the night, disoriented, and she avoided New York City because the crowds reminded her of a May 2006 riot in Kabul where her vehicle, the first in a convoy, was trapped in the middle of 5,000 rioters throwing rocks.

She and Christopher leave in July for Germany, where she will be posted on a base. She hopes her re-enlistment will not include a 15-month tour in Iraq so she and her son can keep on getting back to normal.

"I try to be as patient with him as possible," she said. "I hope he’s patient with me too."

Alison Bowen is a New York-based reporter with Women’s eNews.