Military Moms: How Wars Affect Families

Nearly half of the women who've been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been mothers. This week's parenting conversation explores issues of preparing kids for parents' deployments, how kids adjust to these changes, and how military mothers face different challenges than military fathers. Guest host Jacki Lyden hears from Sergeant Major Odetta Johnson of the U.S. Army Reserves; Margaret Pooley, whose son just returned from Afghanistan; and Laura Browder, author of When Janey Comes Marching Home.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: We wanted to know how military families were coping. Following September 11, 2001, the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan, a move that quickly affected the lives of thousands of service members and their families. Nearly half of the 200,000 women who deployed to Afghanistan and to a separate war in Iraq in the last decade, have been mothers.

We're going to talk to our moms about the impact of those wars on them and their families. Here with us now are Odetta Johnson. She's a master sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves and served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. She's currently a major in the Richmond Police Department and the mom of two teenagers. Welcome to the show.

ODETTA JOHNSON: Why thank you.

LYDEN: Margaret Pooley is the mother of a Marine who recently returned from an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan. Hello Margaret.

MARGARET POOLEY: Hello.

LYDEN: And Laura Browder, who has been on this show before, is the author of "When Janey Comes Marching Home," a book that profiles women who've returned from the wars. She's a professor of American studies at the University of Richmond. Welcome to you.

LAURA BROWDER: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: Well, it's great to have all of you here with us. And Major Odetta Johnson, let's begin with you. You first deployed six years ago when I believe you children were what, under 10?

JOHNSON: Ten and eight. Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. And how did you prepare your kids for your deployment?

JOHNSON: There's really no real way to prepare them. I had to sit down and talk to them about the fact that sometimes you make commitments in your life that later affect everybody in the family. And, of course, they were looking at me a little strange. And I guess some of the toughest parts was talking about leaving, and I didn't have a choice and this was another situation in their life where they didn't have a choice and some changes were about to occur in our family. It was a little difficult...

LYDEN: So...

JOHNSON: ...because it was a choice I had made years before I even knew I was going to be married or have any children.

LYDEN: The choice to be in the service, you mean.

JOHNSON: To be in the military, to commit my life to serving to the military.

LYDEN: But you had never had to leave them for that length of period of time. How did the kids handle the actual deployment?

JOHNSON: Well, originally because the unit trained at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, we had a little time difference but they were still able to reach me by telephone, we could text and at the end of the day I could still give a call or early in the morning. But they were just starting to get used to the fact that they couldn't reach me immediately.

And then when I deployed to Kuwait and they had to go long periods of time without reaching me, the stress levels were starting to build a little bit and I had been gone from home maybe about four months and they were starting to feel the effects of not having me there. And then when I went into Iraq, it really was difficult because if you get caught in a sandstorm or communications go down it could very well be over a week sometimes before I was able to really reach them.

LYDEN: Margaret Pooley, I understand that you're not in favor of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. You've protested against them actively. You've even got lawn signs in the yard that say end the war and yet you have a 20-year-old who joined the military and served. How did you react when your son said that he wanted to enlist?

POOLEY: I thought it was a horrible decision on his part and I tried to get him not to do it but I realized that an 18-year-old is going to do whatever he feels like doing, so I came around to support him.

LYDEN: And did you try to talk him out of it?

POOLEY: We briefly tried to talk him out of it, but he was very adamant about wanting the challenge, wanting to serve his country and he said he would go to college later.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. So as time went on were you able to reconcile this in any way for yourself?

POOLEY: Yes. I mean I'm still not in favor of the war, of course, but I respect him as an adult individual who is on his own path.

LYDEN: And what did he say, he's now recently back, and how has that been going?

POOLEY: Well, I haven't seen him since he's been back. He had to go through the warrior transition program and we're going to see him real soon.

LYDEN: You must be looking forward to that.

POOLEY: Absolutely. Because we would go long period of time where we couldn't talk to him at all.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Laura Browder, you've talked to a lot of women who've gone to war for your book "When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans." How good a job do you think the military is doing at basically alleviating some of the separation stresses that families face?

BROWDER: Well, I think the military is working very hard to do that because now, as you said, there are so many mothers and, of course, so many fathers who have deployed and often deployed repeatedly for long periods of time. I talked to one mother who had had three yearlong back-to-back deployments between 2003 and 2006. She's got four children, including one daughter who's pretty severely autistic, and I know that she and her family really struggled with that.

But, I think, you know, so many families have had to struggle over the last 10 years almost of these two wars.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

BROWDER: I think that in fact the civilian world has a much harder time coping with mothers at war than the military does. Mothers who deploy are judged much more harshly than fathers who deploy. You know, we are all so used to seeing those wonderful celebratory pictures in our local newspapers of fathers in uniform coming home to greet their kids and sometimes coming home to meet babies who they've never seen before because they've been gone. And when we see those pictures we tend to think that's really wonderful and patriotic, but we judge mothers who deploy I think much more harshly.

LYDEN: Well, I know that for your book you also did a companion photo show. I - imagine the picture of, and Odetta you might want to respond to this, a mother coming home from the war and she's handed a crying infant who...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: I think you said that one mother was very sad because the kids didn't recognize the mom.

BROWDER: I've heard that from many mothers, in fact. You know, here she's been thinking about her kids and tried to talk to them as much as possible during the six months or year, or even 18 months that she's been gone, and she comes back and they may have changed a lot because a year is a really long time in a child's life.

And I know Odetta, when we talked, you told me stories about how your kids have changed in some surprising ways the time you had gone.

JOHNSON: Oh, it was so drastic. I was just in shock. I got off the airplane and I saw my mom; she looked the same. And I saw two kids. My son was like two or three inches taller. My daughter, the style of dress, everything was different. And I was expecting to come back home to something like it was when I left.

LYDEN: I'm Jacki Lyden. I'm talking with military moms about the impact war has had on their families. My guests are author Laura Browder, Margaret Pooley, whose son served in Afghanistan, and Master Sergeant Odetta Johnson, now a major in the Richmond Virginia Police Department.

Margaret Pooley, what are you thinking might be the changes? You haven't seen your son in a year. He has gone from 18 to 20. That's not as much of a jump as Major Johnson's children were when they were so young when she went away, but do you think he'll have changed a little bit?

POOLEY: Yes. I think he realizes now that he had it pretty well here. He had an opportunity to go to college. He did well on the SATs and we would've helped financially with that. I think he met kids from all different walks of life in the military, kids who didn't have an option but to join. So I think he's going to have a better perspective on the world. It's not the little cocoon that he's lived in for his first 18 years.

LYDEN: Let me ask you Laura Browder, do you find that military families tend to adjust to having someone deployed over time? It seems like they have little choice.

BROWDER: Well, I mean they adjust in ways that are better and worse. I mean a lot of children have a really tough time coping and there are a lot of kids who end up staying back a year in school because they can't focus, they can't really concentrate on their schoolwork. But, you know, I think the Internet has also made a tremendous difference - for better and for worse - in how kids adjust.

And Odetta, I'm remembering another story that you told me when, you know, you would mention a place where you had been because you were in the Green Zone, right, and you used to drive here and there...

JOHNSON: Yeah.

BROWDER: ...outside of the Green Zone and you'd mention where you are going and, you know, you'd use the real name and your kids would go and look it up on the Internet and say oh Mom, you mean Suicide Alley, don't you? And so they could keep up...

JOHNSON: That was hard too.

BROWDER: Yeah,

JOHNSON: Because they were and I was trying to. I'd tell them after I'd come back from a mission - and the sad part is that I thought that I was giving them comfort, but actually I was scaring them because the Internet had all this additional information of prior events that had happened at that location and, you know, whether or not they considered that the safe area are not. And then they started every day after school wanting to look to see what was finding out.

But I would move to certain places when we would travel to go on convoys. But then I just stopped sending pictures and sending information. That's why it was such a shock when I came home and saw that the size that they were. Because we stopped sending pictures and we just started handwriting letters because I told them that would be a wonderful thing for me because I could read them over and over again regardless of whether or not the Internet was up or not.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

JOHNSON: And actually that really put a little bit more control in their life because then they could control how often I would receive their letters. So each time something happened where I felt like they were losing control or felt that like they might not have choices, I was trying to create a way so that we could still keep in contact as a family.

LYDEN: Laura, what have you learned that military families need the most?

POOLEY: They need the civilian world to understand more of what they're going through. You know, mothers go to war and they come back and, you know, the children have changed but the mothers have changed too. They've seen things and experienced things that their families often just can't understand.

BROWDER: You know, it's interesting, I interviewed over 50 women for my book and I'm working on a documentary right now called "Mothers at War." And one thing that's really struck me is that so many single women and childless women would talk freely and openly to me about their posttraumatic stress disorders, and almost no mothers would, because I think there is such a stigma in our society to being considered a bad mother.

And I think mothers who have been deployed really need to be able to talk about it and acknowledge what they've been through and not feel that they have to try and cover up and be perfect, because they've been through a lot and their families have been through a lot and they need all the support they can get.

LYDEN: Laura Browder is the author of "When Janey Comes Marching Home," a book that profiles female combat veterans. And she was with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta where she's traveling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Margaret Pooley is the mom of a Marine who just returned from an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan. She was with us in our studio in Washington, D.C. And Odetta Johnson is a master sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve and a major in the Richmond Police Department, and she's the mother of two teenagers, and she joined us from Richmond.

Well, thank you all for giving us so much to think about as these wars continue. Thank you.

BROWDER: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

POOLEY: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: And that's our program for today. I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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