Short Maternity Leaves, Long Deployments

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Spec. Amy Shaw, 23, who is deployed to Iraq, keeps in touch with her young through emails, webcam and care packages. Video by Ann Scott Tyson/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

"Little man, I love you! Mommy misses you," Spec. Amy Shaw spoke softly as she looked into the video camera in her Baghdad barracks, surrounded by photographs of tiny Connor James, the infant son she left behind in Wisconsin. "Mommy'll be home soon."

Connor was three months old when Shaw and her husband, Brad, a sergeant with the military police, began a 15-month deployment to Iraq, their second tour in the combat zone. Like thousands of other new military mothers, the 22-year-old Army medic faced a stark choice: Give birth and quickly leave the baby behind, or lose her job.

Many female soldiers hoping to start families face the prospect of missing most of their child's first year. The Army grants six weeks of maternity leave before a new mother must return to her job or training, and four months until she can be sent to a war zone. The Marine Corps and Navy allow from six months to a year before a new mother must deploy.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed severe strains on the Army, including longer deployments in which soldiers serve 15 months in the war zone, followed by 12 months at home. Under that system, a woman who wishes to have a child and remain with her unit must conceive soon after returning home so she can give birth, recover and prepare for her next overseas tour.

Female soldiers interviewed over the past year say the tight schedule cuts short precious time for mother and infant to bond and breast-feed, forcing women to choose between their loyalty to their comrades -- as well as their careers -- and nurturing their families.

Shaw had spent less than four months with Connor when her medical company shipped out with the 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, one of the five brigades President Bush sent to Iraq last year during a troop buildup. Now an ocean apart from her firstborn child, she is doing everything she can to remain a presence in her son's life, hoping that if nothing else he will recognize her voice when she returns.

"I do phone calls. I do e-mails," she said, sitting on her bed holding a large photograph of Connor on her lap. "I use Web cam, letters, packages -- things like that -- the best I can."

The constraints on reproduction, child-rearing and family are a key factor leading many female soldiers to quit the Army, and have discouraged many civilian women from considering enlistment, according to Army officials. Surveys show that time away from families, because of long, frequent deployments, is the top reason for soldiers to leave the Army. The willingness of women to serve in the military has dropped faster than that of men in recent years, from a high of 10 percent among 16- to 21-year-olds in November 2003 to 4 percent last July, according to periodic youth surveys on "propensity to serve" conducted for the Army.

"With the operations tempo that we have right now, it makes it hard to work in family planning and being able to deploy with your units," said Army Capt. Stephanie Cediel, who served in Iraq while her son was a toddler and delayed having a hoped-for second child because of the stress of deployments.

Shaw works 12 hours a day, with half a day off each week, handling everything from sprained ankles to shrapnel wounds and amputations. "The months just run together," she said last week in an interview from Baghdad. "Once you hit that year mark, you are like, 'Last time I deployed I was already at home. Now I'm still here.' "

Husband Brad sends e-mails to Connor about life in Iraq, which Shaw's mother reads aloud to the baby. Shaw said she tries to call Connor three or four times a week, and her mother holds the phone to the boy's ear.

"I tell him how my day's gone," Shaw explains. But, she admits, "it's pretty much a one-sided conversation."


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