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Short maternity leaves, long deployments

Many women soldiers hoping to start families face the prospect of missing most of their child's first year due to policies that see new mothers sent back to the field just four months after giving birth. 
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

"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 women 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.

Little time with baby
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."

An Army of many
The challenges are exacerbated today because far more women and couples with children are serving. About 15 percent of today's military service members are women, compared with 4 percent in 1974, the year after the all-volunteer force was created. Nearly 40 percent of women on active duty have children. About half of the women in the force have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere for the anti-terrorism campaign at least once since 2001, and more than 25,000 are deployed in that fight now.

The men who serve miss out, too, but they have a chance, with careful timing, to deploy while their wives are pregnant and return for much of the child's first year.

Over a chow-hall meal at another Baghdad camp, Sgt. Georgette Oakley, 27, described how she had to leave behind five children and stepchildren from a blended family. Oakley said she and her husband, also an Army sergeant, want to have another baby, but they will not be able to until at least 2009. "Once we both get back, we'll have one together," she said.

About 10 percent of women in the military become pregnant each year, and an estimated 75,000 military offspring are younger than 1, according to the Government Accountability Office. Pregnant soldiers have the option of leaving the service, although some officers are required to first complete their remaining service obligation; all are prohibited from deploying until four months after delivery, unless granted a waiver.

"Without women we would not make our volunteer numbers, so if we destroy the interest of women to volunteer it puts us in a particularly bad place, because the nation does not want a draft," said Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, who has served as chief of the Army Nurse Corps and acting Army surgeon general and is now deputy Army surgeon general for force management.

"We need to look at the fact that many women want to serve but they also want to be mothers," Pollock said. "It's a medical issue, it's a mental health issue. Your ability to bond with your children is . . . very important."

Calls to extend deployment buffer
Pollock said last summer that she had proposed that the Army double the time women are exempt from deployment from four to eight months, noting that she would prefer 12 months. "That addresses the need for breast-feeding that is important for health, and also allows for optimal bonding time," she said.

So far, Army policy remains unchanged, Army spokeswoman Cynthia Vaughan said this month. Senior Army officials declined requests to explain the reasoning behind the current policy.

In contrast, other services grant longer exemptions, and all have generally shorter deployments: The Navy exemption is 12 months, and the Marine Corps's is six months, and deployments average seven months for both. The Air Force has a four-month exemption, but its deployments average only four to six months.

When Shaw became pregnant and learned that her Army unit would deploy, she had the option of getting out altogether. But she took pride in her work and needed the income. "I'd like to be a stay-at-home mom, but financially it's hard," she said at a camp in Baghdad's southern district of Rasheed.

So Shaw made what she calls one of the hardest decisions of her life. Six weeks after delivery, on Oct. 13, 2006, she left Connor with a sitter so she could return to weapons training. Then, before her son could sit up, crawl or grow a tooth, Shaw and her husband left for Iraq in early February, leaving Connor with her parents in Wisconsin.

‘Not seeing all the firsts’
What is most heart-wrenching, Shaw said, is "not seeing all the firsts that moms get to see . . . I have to see it on video or get it in pictures." At the same time, "I have a lot more worries because he's thousands of miles away," she said.

When Connor, who was born with six fingers on one hand, had surgery, Shaw called the operating room from Iraq. "It's your motherly instinct to want to be there and nurture and care for your child . . . and I had to do it over the phone," she said.

In late October, Shaw and her husband took a two-week leave to Appleton, Wis., where Connor's grandmother, Joan Baerenwald, is caring for the baby. Baerenwald is the one who kisses Connor's scrapes while her husband, Dan, works at the local paper mill. She is the one Connor calls "Mama."

"I told my daughter, 'Don't be surprised, don't get upset,' " Baerenwald said in a phone interview, explaining that Connor simply cannot say "Grandma" yet. "You're not taking away their motherhood," she said, but she admits that Shaw is "missing out on so much of Connor."

During the visit to Wisconsin, Shaw was relieved to find that Connor did not cry or fuss when she picked him up, but Baerenwald had to help her with "little quirks" in eating and sleeping, Shaw said.

The Shaws took Connor alone to visit Brad's parents in Maine, where they "learned he's a handful," Baerenwald said.

Tearful good-byes
Back in Wisconsin, early one morning after a breakfast of homemade doughnuts, they drove to the Outagamie County Regional Airport. The couple had a tearful goodbye, even though Connor seemed fine.

In a drab room back in Baghdad, Shaw is comforted somewhat by the thought that her son does not know he is without his parents. "I'd rather be here now than maybe when he's 4 or 5 and he's saying 'Where's Mom? Where's Dad?' " she said.

During free time, Shaw sometimes watches movies or television. Her husband likes to box with other soldiers on the barracks roof. But living in a room that is a veritable shrine to Connor, his face peering out everywhere, Shaw seems to think of little else.

As she packs a box of gifts -- a teddy bear, a tiny Operation Iraqi Freedom hat, and a T-shirt that says "My Mom is over there" -- Shaw shares the hope of having another child someday. But of how she would do that, with an obligation to stay in the Army until 2010 and the prospect of more deployments, Shaw said simply: "I have no clue."