For some military moms, a long-distance juggle

Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 7, 2011

No, it’s not weird that an Army major is making froggy faces at a computer screen in Afghanistan.

Or that a lieutenant colonel, back from commanding a battalion in a hot spot, relays very specific information about the merits of Kotex vs. Tampax for a young teen.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Or that a staff sergeant is issuing a scathing takedown of a crayon/couch/apple juice incident via satellite from Iraq.

These are military moms. And this is how they still manage to nag, nurture and bond with their children from 6,000 miles away.

About 220,000 women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. About 40 percent of active-duty women, or almost 85,000, are mothers, according to a Joint Economic Committee report. And of those, at least 30,000 are single moms.

That’s a lot of American kids who know that Mommy’s not going to make it to the dance recital, won’t be there for the birthday party and, to be perfectly truthful, might not come home at all.

The multi-tasking mom — our worries, our woes, our spit-up-stained business suits and overcommitted volunteering — is practically a walking cliche. But what about when Mom wears fatigues and a bad day means enemy gunfire?

Mom as soldier is still a cultural disconnect. We’re ready to see women as warriors, whether it’s Angelina Jolie playing one in an action flick or the real-life Col. Sylvia Moran judo-chopping her way through West Point. In the past, however, mothers didn’t leave their children to go fight wars.

Col. Lillian Dixon can tell you what it’s like. She was deployed twice to the Balkans, first when her daughter was just 5 years old. Phones were scarce on base. You’d get a phone card and wait in line and then get a few minutes on a scratchy connection to get all the news from Grandma and as many “I love you’s” to the child as possible.

Dixon, who is a serious big shot as a chief of staff in Iraq now, is on her third deployment. It’s much easier this time, with Skype and e-mail and a daughter about to graduate from college.

Yup. Single mom. Army colonel. Kid getting ready to finish Stanford. It’s okay to feel as schlubby as I did after talking to her.

Dixon ends up being a mentor to other military moms in Iraq. And there are many more this time around. It’s easy to recognize them. They’re the ones bonding in the bathroom or trying really hard not to lose it while deploying.

“Oh, I bawled going through security — totally,” said Maj. Elizabeth Sweeney, who is talking from a tent outside of Kandahar province.

Her 2-year-old is back home at Fort Drum in New York with her husband, who is also in the military. She had to pack up and deploy at midnight just 13 days after he got back from his deployment.

Her husband holds their daughter in front of the computer while Mommy makes those funny faces in the middle of the night far away, singing her favorite song. There’s a row of about 30 computers there. She’s not the only one goofy-faced or accidentally getting affectionate with the monitor.

“I jumped up and nearly hugged the screen,” Air Force Master Sgt. Tracy DeMarco told me, when she saw her daughter take some of her first steps via Skype.

Lt. Col. Michele Bredenkamp can relate. “I carry a little burp cloth in a Ziploc. It smells like him,” said Bredenkamp, whose 20-month-old son is home with Dad, who commands a division of the 82nd Airborne when he’s not doing the day-care run.

She also carries a googly little wrist rattle — the kind you strap around their fat, dimpled arms — everywhere with her in Afghanistan. Everywhere.

“I’m probably the only one jumping out of a helicopter into a hotspot with this little toy in my pack,” she told me. Then she paused. “I miss him so much,” she said.

Military moms go through all kinds of routines to keep themselves in their children’s lives while they’re out there. There’s Skype. And through that they help with homework, check on permission slips, watch dance routines and karate moves.

Sweeney said that before deploying in April, she “pre-staged an Easter basket.” Only a military woman would say it like that.

The single moms who deploy often rely on grandparents to care for their children. But for the women who leave husbands in charge, it’s a role reversal of the highest order. And just as the fathers are learning about day-care pickup and which stuffed animal is as vital as oxygen at bedtime and which child treats carrots like cyanide and how not knowing those details can bring your whole evening crashing down, women have a lot to learn, too.

Let’s not forget: You’re dealing with military women here. Bossy? Type A? Oh, yes, they all said.

There is an art to not being there.

“Sometimes, it was so hard not to call,” said DeMarco, who now works at Andrews Air Force Base. “There were times when my older daughter didn’t want to talk to me on the phone. And it was hard not to be needed by her.”

She doesn’t have that problem today. They magnetize to her legs when she picks them up at day care and drives back home to Bowie after work.

Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer-Rebeccah Williams has learned from each of her three deployments how to inject herself back into her 6-year-old’s life. And how not to.

“The first time back was so hard. I got back and just wanted to jump in and take over. But my daughter and husband, they had their routine. They were doing it without me,” said Williams, who was stationed at Fort Belvoir when their daughter was born.

On the third deployment, she knows not to cringe when Daddy polishes his daughter’s nails a little sloppy. Or to keep reminding him that Girl Scouts meetings are on Mondays, yoga on Wednesdays. He knows.

First Sgt. Carmen Lee deals with it when it comes to their — ready for this? — six kids. The blended family lives in Baltimore, and Lee struggles not to remote control them from her post in Iraq.

“It is very hard to give up that control. The first few weeks being gone, I’d be on them all the time, telling them: ‘Dinner has to be here. Did you get the permission slips? Did you get the uniforms together?’ I scolded my son over Skype if he got a questionable grade.”

And then she realized, even without her, their world went on.

“You have to learn to relinquish some of the control, and that’s probably the hardest thing,” she said. “I have to be honest with you — it makes me a little sad.”

Funny, these military women jump from planes, fly helicopters, fire weapons. That’s what they were trained to do, they’ll snap when you ask.

But letting go of being a mom 24-7? There is no training for that.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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