Deployment Being Used Against Parents in Child Custody Battles

Sgt. Stephanie Greer of the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade at Fort Lee, Va., discusses the custody battle she waged for her daughters while deployed in Iraq. Video by Ann Scott Tyson/The Washington Post
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

FORT LEE, Va. -- Army Sgt. Stephanie Greer was serving with a vehicle-maintenance unit in the volatile Iraqi city of Ramadi, part of President Bush's "surge" strategy to stabilize the country, when she learned of a far-off and most unexpected battle: Her estranged husband was going to fight her for custody of their daughter.

Greer had temporary custody of Mackenzie when she began her second deployment to Iraq in early 2007. Her husband was to care for the 7-year-old while Greer was overseas, but soon he challenged that arrangement in divorce proceedings. "He said I was unstable because I was deployed or training too much," she said.

As a result, throughout her 15-month combat tour, Greer had to mount from 4,000 miles away a legal campaign to keep her daughter.

"If I had not deployed, I know I never would have faced this situation," said Greer, 39. "I don't think it should be held against you, and I don't think my time away, or me deploying, affects my ability to be a mother or provide for my kids."

If she expected support in that position from the military, she was disappointed. Instead, the message she said she received from her superiors was: Deal with it.

"In the midst of the deployment, everything goes to pieces . . . and they say, 'Just let it go and fix it when you get home,' " Greer said. "But most of the time when you do that, it is too late."

The military does not track statistics on custody disputes, but as military divorce rates rise -- particularly among enlisted female troops such as Greer -- so do child custody struggles in which military service overseas has become a wedge issue, according to experts in military family law.

"More and more, a service member is deployed and the service member's spouse is seeking to use that to their advantage," said Greg Rinckey, a former Army judge advocate.

"We are seeing a substantial increase in cases . . . challenging the custody of military parents and the return of custody when they come back from mobilization or deployment, compared to virtually none 10 years ago," said Mark E. Sullivan, a retired Army Reserve judge advocate who practices family law in North Carolina. The increase has been greatest in states with large military populations, such as Virginia and Texas, he added.

Female troops may be particularly at risk, because mothers are more likely to have custody of children after a divorce. "For them to go away for 15 to 18 months, it opens the door to these challenges," said A.J. Balbo, Greer's attorney and a former Army judge advocate.

These conditions create an impossible quandary for service members who are devoted parents and yet must fulfill their obligation to their country, Rinckey and other experts said.

Under Army regulations, soldiers can request emergency leave because of the threat of divorce or related problems at home, although unit commanders retain ultimate discretion to grant approval. However, Balbo said, "most of the time the chain of command is not going to view the custody fight as an emergency."

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