For soldiers, single motherhood becomes another battlefield

By Mary Eberstadt
Friday, February 26, 2010

The latest flurry of attention toward gays in the military shows that the question of who gets to be a soldier, and why, is sometimes unavoidably moral. So let's ask that question about another group of soldiers who haven't attracted as much talk but should: mothers, many of them single, in combat boots -- and combat zones.

Consider the case of Spec. Alexis Hutchinson, against whom the Army filed criminal charges in mid-January before granting her an other-than-honorable discharge instead. Ordered to Afghanistan in November from Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia, the Army cook and single mother refused to go. Subsequently, she was arrested and her son temporarily placed in foster care -- because, a spokesman explained, she'd had "plenty of time" to find a babysitter while the only parent in his 10-month-old life went off to war.

When Congress passed a law in the 1970s allowing women with dependent children to enlist, a collision between motherhood and soldiering became inevitable. The wonder is not that a mother with a baby might choose the baby. Rather, it is that -- given two wars and current military policy -- more cases like Hutchinson's have not erupted.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America reported that 30,000 single mothers had served in those two war zones as of March 2009. In other words, and with the tacit consent of our civilian leaders, the U.S. military routinely recruits mothers of babies and young children, or soon-to-be-mothers -- and often puts them in harm's way more or less as it does every other soldier.

To ask why is not to question the ability and bravery of women in the military or outside it. History and literature -- to say nothing of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- abound with examples of women acting with valor in combat and in other dangerous situations. The murderous rampage by Maj. Nidal M. Hasan at Fort Hood last November, for example, was interrupted by the courageous intervention of a female police officer (and mother) who charged him at point-blank range.

Yet all this is beside the larger moral point. The notion that women can be soldiers in war zones, therefore women who are mothers should be soldiers in war zones remains a blatant non sequitur. Official military policy is still to keep women away from combat (the specific rules vary by service). But it is also true that sophistical maneuvering around these rules has become commonplace.

The New York Times reported from Afghanistan last August that "Army commanders have resorted to bureaucratic trickery when they needed more soldiers for crucial jobs, like bomb disposal and intelligence" and that "as soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, women have done nearly as much in battle as their male counterparts: patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, disposed of explosives, and driven trucks down bomb-ridden roads." Moreover, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the designation of a "combat zone" is intrinsically problematic -- perhaps impossible. Much of current policy, in sum, is unenforceable.

Here is another question we should be asking: What is watching Mommy go off to war doing to some of those children?

Lt. Col. Mona Ternus, a George Mason University professor, recently analyzed responses by 77 female soldiers returning home from deployment to children ages 10 to 18. She concluded that "A longer deployment leads to increased risk behaviors among adolescent children such as non-accidental physical injury, physical fights, incidents involving weapons, cigarette smoking/chewing tobacco, alcohol, illegal drug use, self mutilation, drop in school grades and attempted suicide."

Last month, researchers at the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute found that adolescents with deployed parents had higher stress levels than others and that "a strong family" was one factor ameliorating that stress -- one that might not obtain so well in single-mother households when mom is away at war. In December, a Rand Corp. study found that across all ages, children of the deployed are more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems and that those problems increase with the amount of time deployed.

These studies mainly concern fathers, not mothers. But do we really think the children with deployed mothers aren't even worse off?

Sending fathers into military zones has been a tragedy for as long as war has been around. Sending mothers along with them -- many of them the only parent a child has -- is simply wrong. If we're uncomfortable staring at that picture of Spec. Hutchinson and her baby, maybe we should ask ourselves why.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of "The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism." A longer version of this essay appears in the March issue of Policy Review.

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