WOMEN AFTER WAR A Single Mother's Challenges

Yearning to Be Whole Again

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 24, 2006

When they called her name, she could not move. Sgt. Leana Nishimura intended to walk up proudly, shake the dignitaries' hands and accept their honors for her service in Iraq-- a special coin, a lapel pin, a glass-encased U.S. flag.

But her son clung to her leg. He cried and held tight, she recalled. And so Nishimura stayed where she was, and the ceremony last summer went on without her. T.J. was 9, her oldest child, and although eight months had passed since she had returned from the war zone, he was still upset by anything that reminded him of her deployment.

He remembered the long separation. The faraway move to live with his grandmother. The months that went by without his mother's kisses or hugs, without her scrutiny of homework, her teasing humor, her familiar bedtime songs.

Nishimura was a single mother -- with no spouse to take over, to preserve her children's routines, to keep up the family apartment.

Of her three children, T.J. seemed to worry most. He sent letter after letter to the war zone, where she was a communications specialist, part of the Maryland National Guard.

"He went from having one parent to having no parents, basically," Nishimura said, reflecting, "People have said, 'Thank you so much for your sacrifice.' But it's the children who have had more of a sacrifice."

When war started in Iraq, a generation of U.S. women became involved as never before-- in a wider-than-ever array of jobs, for long deployments, in a conflict with daily bloodshed. More than 155,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among their ranks are more than 16,000 single mothers, according to the Pentagon, a number that military experts say is unprecedented.

How these women have coped and how their children are managing have gone little-noticed as the war stretches across a fourth year.

"It has to be one of the hardest things that a mom and her children have to go through," said Steven Mintz, a University of Houston professor with an expertise in family life. "You can't cuddle a young child over the phone, and you can't cuddle a child through e-mail."

In the military, parental status is not a barrier to serving in a war. All deploy when the call comes -- single mothers, single fathers, married couples -- relying on a "family-care plan" that designates a caregiver for children when parents are gone.

The thinking is that a soldier is a soldier. "Everyone trains to a standard of readiness and must be able to be mobilized," said Lt. Col. Mike Milord of the National Guard Bureau.

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