National Edition

Mom goes to war: Balancing personal and family lives with wartime

Published: Wednesday, May 21 2014 11:15 a.m. MDT

Maj. Annette Barnes poses with photos of her daughter, Sgt. Chloe Card, in her office at Camp Williams, Tuesday, May 20, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Stacy Keyte had just re-enlisted in the National Guard in 2004 when she got pregnant with her son, Caleb. He was a year old when she got a call at her job at a local bank. She was being deployed to Iraq.

Going to war wasn't on her mind when she had her baby.

“I was thinking about first steps and getting through the teething stage,” she says, and then suddenly she had two months until she was shipping out and leaving her baby and husband behind. “I was in panic mode. I had a 1-year-old, I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ ”

Stacy and her husband, who is also in the National Guard, prepared for her departure and Stacy “made every moment count” with her son. She picked him up from day care every day, and they came home and danced to country music to unwind — a little mother-son ritual. She took her last few weeks off work to stay home with him.

Then she went to Fort Hood for four months of training, and a few weeks later, she arrived at her station in Tikrit, Iraq. “Those simple moments of having those little arms around your neck, or that big baby belly laugh, all things you do every day, you don’t think how much they mean until you can’t do it,” she says.

Stacy represents one of 200,000 women who are active duty in the U.S. military and 190,000 more in the Reserves and National Guard; women now make up 15 percent of the country’s active forces.

The number of women in the military has shot up over the last few decades. About 40,000 women served in the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s, and that number more than quadrupled to more than 200,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of women veterans is expected to double by 2035. Women in the military reap benefits from their service. They are better educated than their non-veteran counterparts, thanks in part to the G.I. Bill — about a third more women veterans had some college education compared with non-veterans, and 5 percent more have advanced degrees, according to VA data. And they often feel deeply committed to their roles and their country.

But now, they also have the pressures of balancing their personal and family lives with wartime experience in unprecedented ways. Before the first Gulf War, mothers were given the choice to carry out service obligations, or honorably leave the military, but now women are expected to deploy. Today, more than 40 percent of women in the military have children and at least 30,000 single mothers have deployed over the past 10 years of wartime operations.

It’s a fascinating time for women in the military, says Dr. Amy Street, director of the Women's Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD, and associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School. “We have never seen women return from war with combat experience, almost any time in U.S. history, like we have in the last 10 years,” she says.

Now front lines are blurred, and women often see combat, or combat-like situations, whether they are doing the dangerous work of driving Humvees, or working on bases that are prone to attack.

The military provides women good pay, stable work and opportunities for advancement and serving their country, which are good things for their families. Still, they struggle with separation from loved ones, sometimes dangerous work, and the often-difficult transition back to family life, says Kim Olson, a retired colonel from the Air Force and president of Grace After Fire, a nonprofit group that serves women veterans.

"When she gets off the plane, guess what the expectation is? She's home! Here's the kids. Here's your house. Here's your job," says Olson. "She's expected to just roll into these roles with no space to reintegrate."

Battle lines

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