If you are a mother, you know that there are times when you feel you have been through the war. If you are a military mother…you actually have!

Men and women don’t go to war – families go to war and as a result there are many military mothers. They include mothers who have to leave their children to serve; mothers of the men and women who serve; and military spouses who hold on to their children and the life at home while their partners serve.

A closer look at these military mothers offers a reflection of fear and courage, of sacrifice and maternal resilience, of trauma and triumph.

Military Mothers: Bearing Children and Bearing Arms

Nearly 38 percent of women in active duty have children. Approximately 11 percent of women in the military are single mothers and women are five times more likely to be in dual military marriages where both partners are eligible for deployment.

The Conflict of Roles

When Heidi Kraft, author of Rule Number Two, was deployed as a combat psychologist to join the Alpha Surgical Unit in Iraq, her twins were 15 months old. Leaving them in the hands of her parents and marine officer husband, she would be gone for 8 months.

Immediately immersed into the urgency of war, she describes being faced with a conflict. She could not function in Iraq if her children stayed in the forefront of her consciousness. She made the difficult decision to stay mission focused.

As part of a surgical team, she responded to both the physical anguish and emotional trauma of the young marines and the inconsolable grief of a committed staff.  As such, she found that she never really gave up her role as mother.

As she held and squeezed the hand of one young dying marine and he responded by squeezing back – the meaning of her role took on an expanded light. She had stepped in for his mother- for all the mothers not able to be with their children.

“Plan for the Worst-Hope for the Best”

Julie Weckerlein, a technical sergeant in the US Air Force Reserve, was deployed in 2007 as a combat correspondent on a three-man team, with the mission of gathering news, photos and close reporting of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Her daughter Claire was 3 years old.

When Julie, her husband, Martin and their little Claire exchanged farewells at the airport, Julie told him to keep the camera rolling. She wanted Claire to have a record of that day. As Julie explained in an interview with me,

“In the military – you plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

In many ways, Julie tried to do just that.

  • Worried that her daughter and spouse would be isolated in a non-military community, she and Martin informed teachers, invited neighbors and shared a fun and “briefing” night that included showing the Sesame Street Program for Military Families. The neighbors stepped up.
  • Julie and her husband used and have continued a “Julie and Martin” blog in which they kept each other and family and friends updated. As such, they created a virtual community for others in similar situations.
  • Feeling the longing for mothering at times, Julie reports that in the midst of danger, updates and missions, doing something surreal like ordering the birthday supplies for Claire’s 4th birthday from a internet café in Kabul in the middle of the night, served as a wonderful distraction and a few moments of feeling close to her loved ones at home.
  • Wanting to give Claire a way to feel connected to her, Julie gave her  “The Mommy’s Prayer” – a way for Claire to say a prayer at anytime could be sent with the word “Amen” like e-mail through God to Mommy.

Care of Mothers is Care of Children

  • Despite the plans, war is war. Julie often had to go outside the wire, faced the terror of an ambush, the wounding of her teammate, and the frightening isolation of often being a woman alone in an unsecured tent.
  • When asked what she would do differently, Julie said she would get counseling for herself on her return to process what she faced. As such, she echoes so many military mothers who set aside self-care to resume care of their children-  “I am back, that is over… Now I just want to focus on my children.”
  • When military moms recognize their need to address the imprint of war, they also recognize their children’s needs to process the deployment. Often it is not until a mother or father is back that a child or teen feels safe enough to disclose what they have feared. Often that consideration will be re-visited at different stages of the child and the mother’s life.

Military Mothers – Watching Your Children Go Off to War

The number of men and women in the US military including guardsmen and reservists is close to 2.4 million – that’s a lot of military moms.

As a group they watch Boot Camp Graduations and West Point graduations with pride and the pain of worry. They try to live with the motto that no news is good news but as military mother and poet, Frances Richey says, “Isn’t that your job? To whisper in the ear of any god who’ll listen: Please protect him.”

The Power of Group Support

  • An important resource for parents is the support and communication of others, particularly other military parents in parent groups, Yellow Ribbon Programs as well as online groups like MilitaryMoms.com, Militarymomtalkradio and militaryfamily.com.
  • Some parents can benefit from resources for a daughter or son who has been wounded or is suffering with depression, PTSD, anxiety and needs help with the emotional wounds of war. Give an Hour and The Soldiers Project are valuable options.

Losing a Child in War

  • I was at a dinner speaking about military children when a woman approached me to tell me that she had lost her son in Iraq. She needed me to know his name – to bear witness.
  • A day before Memorial Day this town will have a memorial run for a local young marine who was killed two years ago. His mother has told me she is unhappy but proud of her son. She feels that she has greatly benefited from the support and understanding of Gold Star Mothers.
  • Losing a child who has served his/her country is complicated with a mix of feelings. Often you see in the parents a glimpse of that same willingness to give, even in their grief, that their child demonstrated.

Recently, Kelly Hugo, a military mother flew to a US Hospital in Germany to identify her 21-year-old mortally wounded son. When she was asked to verify that he was listed as an organ donor she said “ Oh yes, because something good has to come out of something bad.”

Military Mothers – Holding the Children and the Connection

Military spouses and their children make up a significant percentage of the larger military community and 93 percent of military spouses are women.

When you speak with or spend time with military moms who face the ambiguity of deployment cycles and take on the stress and the challenge of raising the children, dealing with the house, holding a job and maintaining a connection to their spouse while hearing “I wish Daddy Was Here” – you are struck with their courage and resilience.

Positive Activities

Those that function the best are active, optimistic, self-reliant and flexible – One mother said she regulated her own stress by keeping the children busy doing things for deployed military and for military families near her home. The result was that they met other families, worked as a team and felt connected to Dad.

Creative Community

Particularly for those not on a military base, an effort to find a supportive community helps support a military family. Sarah Smiley, wife of a Navy pilot, knew that her spouse’s 13-month deployment would be a difficult one for her and her three boys ages 11, 5 and 9. Knowing that dinnertime would be the roughest they started a program called “Dinner with the Smileys,” during which they invite someone once a week to eat dinner until Dad returns. They have had guests ranging from politicians to neighbors.

Effective Communication

Central to the optimal functioning during deployment cycles is planning. Communication with the deployed spouse is crucial.

  • Some report finding that they become so addicted to waiting for the call, the email etc. that they have to set up workable times and expectations. Often planning to share a mix of things and not every problem makes the calls more a source of resilience and support than distress and worry.
  • One couple each separately kept a diary that they talked to each other about with the plan of actually reading it when they were together.
  • One family had a great time reporting events to Dad through the eyes of the family pets.
  • Helping children use Skype and ways of communicating with Dad makes a difference is lowering anxiety. One military Dad told a group of military children, however, that there was something special about carrying a real letter from his little sons in his pocket.

Living With Uncertainty

The Deployment cycles can be difficult. As Katherine Mille, author and military mother says – being told a deployment might be coming throws a wrench into any plans you have. For some it is an invitation to make every day count – for others it feels like a ominous cloud.

  • The more role flexibility parents can develop and even invite in their children – the more mastery everyone feels no matter what the next move or plan.
  • The more projects planned during a deployment for the waiting family – making a movie, building a shed, planning a trip, learning an instrument – the more re-framing and ownership of time. It makes coping with an extended deployment more possible and positive.
  • In some ways Katherine Mille’s book, I Wish Daddy Was Here, which she wrote to help herself and her little girl cope with her husband’s deployment, captures a year of doing and enjoying each season as she and her daughter waited for his return.

 What we know about military moms is that they bring a unique blend of courage that makes the impossible – possible.

Picture of Julie Weckerlein and 3-year-old Claire