Building a successful career often means long deployments away from kids and home.
By Jessica Grose
Nov. 11, 2020
Heather King, 38, deployed multiple times when her son was small.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times
Lt. Col. Nichelle Somers is an active-duty pilot in the U.S. Air Force who was deployed in Djibouti in early 2020. Her three kids, who are 5, 7 and 9, were at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, with her husband, Jason Somers, who is also a lieutenant colonel and pilot. While she was away, her husband was unexpectedly moved into a leadership position, and her in-laws came out to Japan to help with their children.
Like many of the military moms I spoke with for this article who are married, Colonel Somers, 40, said it was harder on the spouse at home than it was on the one who was deployed. “He had to deal with being the single parent and having the leadership position and trying to fly,” she said.
Colonel Somers was supposed to be gone for six months, but was ultimately deployed for more than seven months. “My struggle was more just emotional, being separated from the kids, and not being able to help when things were not going well at home.” All military parents regardless of gender experience that, she said.
In honor of Veterans Day, I wanted to highlight the experiences of active-duty moms like Colonel Somers, and veteran moms who have deployed, at great personal sacrifice.
Moms are still a rarity in the military. Women make up 16 percent of enlisted forces and 19 percent of the officer corps, and a minority of those women have children under 18. Though the number of mothers in the armed forces has grown over the past several decades, studies have shown that insufficient child care and unfriendly parenthood and pregnancy policies have been barriers to retention for female service members.
Colonel Somers’s absence during deployment was hardest on her 7-year-old daughter, who would be a “ball of tears” every time they spoke — mostly on weekends because of the time difference. “I struggled with not always wanting to talk to them, because I knew it would be an emotional drain,” she said. Her 9-year-old son would give one-word answers to any questions. But her 5-year-old “was amazing and would carry the phone around the house and give me a play-by-play of the toys,” she said.
“It got a lot harder when Covid came along,” she said. While she was still in Djibouti, Jason and her father-in-law got the coronavirus and had to be quarantined on base in Japan. Her mother-in-law, who is not tech savvy, had to supervise remote learning on her own for three kids in the family home off base.
During her deployment, Colonel Somers was selected for a leadership position in California, and had to manage a move across multiple continents for her and her family during a pandemic. She spoke to me from Riverside, Calif., where her family is now settled. She was careful to note the many privileges she gets because of her rank in the military, and because she is married with a supportive family.
Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, a professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University, who also directs the Military Family Research Institute, said: “So many systems are designed with the idea of a male service member and a female spouse.” Many women in the armed forces feel as though having children is a career turning point, MacDermid Wadsworth said, “Especially if they’re in dual-service marriages, it’s really hard to stay in.”
According to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office: “female military veterans cited difficulties being separated from their children for long time periods as a reason for ending military service. These difficulties were both emotional and practical, including limited stable and safe placement options for children while mothers were deployed.”
Deployment may be even harder on single mothers. Heather King, 38, who was active duty in the Air Force from 2001-7 and in the reserves from 2007-10, and is currently a social media manager for the Army Recruiting Battalion in Nashville, deployed several times in the early 2000s, when her son, now 20, was young. “He was never with me for more than six months at a time because of my deployment schedule,” King said.
He lived with her parents, and King described the devastation of her son calling his grandmother “Mom” instead of her at one point. “I felt so guilty,” she said. King also has a daughter who is 11, and she also feels guilty about getting to be more present for her daughter than she was for her son, since she was no longer deploying once her daughter was born.
Supports for military moms have improved since King served. In most of the armed forces, maternity leave doubled, to 12 weeks from six weeks. Danelle Barrett, 53, who spent 30 years in the Navy, retiring as a rear admiral, and has a 24-year-old daughter, described going back to work when her baby was 6 weeks old. She was pumping breast milk in a trailer while working 16- to 18-hour days.
Despite the difficult times these mothers endured, they were all incredibly proud of serving their country. “Leaving your child is the most difficult decision ever,” said Brandi Caudill, 46, who retired from the Navy in 2012. She has two boys, now 12 and 15, and went through a divorce from another active-duty service member when her younger son was a toddler.
Her parents helped care for her sons in Virginia when she deployed and her ex-husband was stationed in Florida. “We sacrifice our time with our children to protect our country,” Caudill said. “Working on an aircraft carrier is a very dangerous job. I saw several people die in front of me. The dedication it takes to leave your child like that, it really is gut wrenching.”