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. More than 155,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — in a wider-than-ever array of jobs, for long deployments, in a conflict with daily bloodshed.
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.
But war duty can be especially difficult for single parents. A year ago, Nishimura returned to the United States to face practical difficulties. Emotional issues. And unavoidable questions concerning her children: Will there be another deployment? What if a parent does not come back?
Home, but still apart
On a cool, dusky Saturday evening last November, her bus arrived at the red brick Maryland National Guard Armory in Towson. There were yellow ribbons and welcome-home banners. A crowd of supporters cheered and cried.
One soldier walked off the bus and kissed the ground.
Nishimura fell into the embrace of two friends who had come to meet her, but she felt disconnected from the emotion of the moment. Instead, she noticed a friend who had returned on the same bus—and was now hugging her husband and son.
She wondered: When would she see her own children?
Before Iraq, Nishimura had worked as a teacher and cheerleading coach at a Christian school in Prince George's County. Her National Guard duty, with the 129th Signal Battalion, brought in extra money. Her ex-husband paid child support. Still, she only scraped by, with the help of public assistance.
Now her life was like a puzzle with missing pieces.
Her children—Cheyenne, then 3; Dylan, then 6; and T.J., then 7—were in Hawaii, being cared for by their grandmother. Nishimura did not have the money to fly them back. She had no home for them, either, having long ago given up her apartment.
As she got off the bus, she could not help but dwell on one fact of timing: Christmas was 50 days away. Would they be together for the holiday?
She was heartened by a good lead on a full-time contracting job with the National Guard. But there was a glitch: It would mean relocating to Havre de Grace, Md., 100 miles north of her old home in Waldorf.
If she got the job, she had decided, the family would move there.
For the kids, the move to her mother's house in Hawaii had meant new schools, new friends and a new caregiver with a high-rise apartment and a full-time job. Nishimura's 3-year-old daughter seemed to have the toughest time, said grandmother Cynthia Nishimura. She cried at night and at day care.
Unable to grasp the concept of a faraway war, the girl had absorbed only her mother's mode of transportation. "Mommy works on an airplane," she told people.
Her brothers knew more. T.J., in particular, knew that Iraq was dangerous. For a time, he watched war coverage on television. He saw the violence, heard about casualties. Finally, his grandmother banned the news.
The essential phone calls
In Iraq, Nishimura was attached to a soft flannel pillow adorned with the faces of her three children. "God's gifts," it read. "This is why I Fight!" She hugged it at night, even packing it in her duffle bag when she left the base.
As often as she could, she talked to her children by phone, and they had a ritual: At the end of every call, they counted one, two, three — and then made noisy kisses in unison.
Now she was back in the United States, still clutching the pillow and talking on her cellphone, the children still thousands of miles away.
In a matter of weeks, Nishimura landed the job in Havre de Grace and found a little duplex to rent — with wood floors and a big picture window—using all that she had to cover the rent and security deposit.
There was a little yard. The public school was down the block.
On the day her new telephone service was connected, Nishimura called her children. Then the phone rang.
"Hi, Mommy," her oldest son said.
Her middle child called next.
"Hi, Mommy," he said.
The phone rang again.
"Mommy, I wanted to call you, too," her daughter announced.
Nishimura assured them that they would be together soon.
Some days, she wondered how.
For airline tickets, she had pinned her hopes on the well-known charitable program Operation Hero Miles, which donates airline miles to U.S. service members.
It was only in late November that she learned the program was geared to hospitalized troops and their families. She and her children did not qualify.
Nishimura then took heart when fellow guardsmen offered to donate miles to her — only to learn that airlines would not allow such mileage transfers.
At 29 years old, she had no credit cards, she said, having badly damaged her credit in the financial turmoil of her divorce. While in Iraq, she sent her earnings to her mother for her children's care.
"I'm pretty discouraged," she admitted one afternoon four weeks after she flew home.
The grace of others
Help came in unexpected bits. There were groceries delivered by the pastor and elder of the church across the street. There was a bed for her daughter donated by her new boss. There were clothes and food and other help from volunteers Mary and Paul Crawford.
Much of this happened because Nishimura was "adopted" by First Christian Church of Havre de Grace through a National Guard program, Partners in Care, which links needy soldiers with congregations.
Then one of her senior officers, Maj. Timothy Mullen, wrote letters on her behalf, which inspired contributions for the plane tickets from three chapters of the 29th Division Association, a veterans group, and four churches.
Twelve days before Christmas, it all came together: The children and their grandmother would board Christmas Day flights, which were least expensive, at a total cost of less than $1,500, covered largely by the generosity of strangers.
"It was probably one of the best things I've seen happen in a long time," said Mullen. "I don't think anyone [in the unit] had the volume of issues she had."
Nishimura's children bounded off a plane the morning after Christmas.
"I hugged Mommy first!" she recalled her daughter exclaiming.
Nishimura, in tears, felt the worst was behind them.
Shaken and nervous
On a bright day in January, Nishimura walked her children to church, glad to be back to her old life, to be thinking about Sunday school and loose teeth and untied shoes and homework.
But the experience of war did not easily fade. She had been based in Tikrit, amid mortars that shook the earth, near roads where bombs were often hidden.
Now she found herself seized by sudden tears, insomnia and nightmares.
In one dream, she saw herself doing a military crawl, with her middle child on her back, as bombs exploded around them.
In another, she hunted everywhere for her children, but they were gone. "Either I'm separated and I can't find them," she said, "or I am with them and we are in danger. "
She eventually saw a counselor, who told her she had post-traumatic stress disorder and gave her medication .
The stress of war came on top of the stress of life.
Her closest friends lived far away. There were new schools, new neighbors. Her job paid well and she still got child support, but it was hard to make ends meet. Over time, her family settled in: her sons joining baseball teams, her daughter signing up for gymnastics. The family bought one pet bird and rescued another. "I feel like it's finally coming together," she said one spring morning.
Then her oldest son cried at the sight of her packing a suitcase for a short business trip. And after a veterans celebration at school, he refused to open his books.
Finally, she said he told her: "I don't want you to go again."
Experts say that emotional fallout for children can come and go after war. "Kids, at some level, must feel a sense of abandonment," said Mintz, the Houston professor.
Recently, Nishimura switched military jobs, becoming a chaplain's assistant. She wants to make the military a career, although she could be redeployed. "I tell [the children] that if God needs Mommy to go . . . then Mommy's going to have to go again and they're going to have to let me."
Last week, Nishimura, in uniform, gave a presentation about Iraq to her sons' Cub Scout pack. The boys were about to make care packages for U.S. troops, and she wanted to let them know about life as a soldier.
"I carried my M-16 wherever I went," she told them.
T.J. listened wide-eyed.
"I had to go one whole year without seeing my kids," she let them know. "How would you feel if you went one whole year without seeing your Mommy and Daddy?"
"Lonely," volunteered one scout.
"I would go crazy," another said emphatically.
T.J. spoke up without reluctance.
"I cried a lot," he told them.
His mother was surprised by his admission, then glad.
When the boys went on to making cards for the troops, T.J. said he was reminded of all the letters he had sent her in Iraq. His own message to the war zone was simple. It read, "Come back safely!"