Chief Petty Officer Andrew Griffitts and his wife Jennifer are parents of 4-year-old Caleb (bottom left), 6-year-old Isabella and 15-month-old Jackson.
Chief Petty Officer Andrew Griffitts and his wife Jennifer are parents of 4-year-old Caleb (bottom left), 6-year-old Isabella and 15-month-old Jackson. Family photo
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rage on, repeated deployments are taking a toll on military families.
Service members are prepared for the dangers that lie ahead, but spouses and children are often left to navigate the emotional and physical challenges that come with separation alone. Those challenges are compounded when a parent has a child with special needs.
One military family in Texas is trying to overcome those extraordinary obstacles every day.
On a Saturday morning in at the Griffitts household in San Antonio, the kitchen is full of excitement mixed with the smell of pancakes. Six-year-old Isabella, 4-year-old Caleb and 15-month-old Jackson gather around a laptop while their mother, Jennifer, waits for their father to connect via Skype.
Andrew Griffitts, a chief petty officer in the Navy, is in the middle of a long deployment in Afghanistan. These once-a-week conversations are precious. Jennifer tries to manage the household and take care of the three kids. On top of that, Caleb has special needs, and Jennifer spends much of her week shuttling him to therapists and doctors to help him overcome his physical and mental challenges resulting from several birth defects.
"Torticollis. He can only move his neck so far," said Jennifer of her son's disease. "It's like a tightening of the neck muscles. He's [also] got plagiocephaly, which is a flattening of the head."
Complications associated with Caleb's torticollis and plagiocephaly have left him with the mental and emotional development of a 9-month-old baby.
"He can't walk," said Jennifer. "He can't crawl; he can't sit up on his own. He sits in a wheelchair most of the time. If he's here at home he'll sit in a little toddler chair just so that he is comfortable, or we get him to roll around on the floor and we do some exercises with him."
Jennifer was laid off from her job as a corporate media buyer shortly after Andrew's deployment. She missed a lot of work trying to manage the three kids on her own and says her boss wasn't very flexible or understanding. But despite the loss of income, Jennifer says she is coping.
"Before I got laid off, I felt like I was being pulled in all different directions and I wasn't giving my all to any of them," she said. "So I believe getting laid off was a blessing in disguise."
But the daily grind of trying to manage everything alone is taking its toll. Andrew's parent's live about 10 miles away, but they aren't able to help out as much as they would like. Witnessing the emotional toll her husband's deployment is having on her kids is the most difficult.
"Everyday my daughter tells me how much she misses her daddy," said Jennifer. "When she heard about her friend CJ's dad coming home from his deployment, she said 'Does that mean my daddy's coming home soon?' and I said 'No, honey. Not for a couple more months.' "
Jennifer tries to remain positive, but she admits that's an uphill battle.
"I have to take one day at a time," she said, "because it is hard. I'm also one of those stubborn people that doesn't like to ask for help."
Exceptional Family Member Program
The Griffitts get some help through the Navy's Exceptional Family Member Program. Caleb's physical health care is provided through the program at an Air Force hospital in San Antonio because it's close to where they live. But Jennifer says that the military program doesn't provide a lot of emotional support.
"You would think that the military would look at each family individually," said Jennifer. "But they don't."
Kelly Hruska is with the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va. She concedes that each branch of the service runs its Exceptional Family Member Program differently, but a bill recently passed by Congress will create a single Defense Department office dedicated to helping military families like the Griffitts.
"The Army and the Marine Corps have a very well developed Exceptional Family Member Program, whereas the Navy and the Air Force are working to better establish their programs," said Hruska. "Our association does believe that this office is going to help integrate those services a little bit."
Back in San Antonio, Jennifer looks forward to the excitement generated every weekend when the kids get to talk their dad over the Internet. It's especially important for Caleb.
"Every time he hears Andrew's voice on messenger or Skype or just on the phone, his face just lights up and he gets a smile and he starts kicking his legs and he just makes all these noises," said Jennifer. "It's so cute to see."
Andrew's deployment is scheduled to end in December. Jennifer hopes next year, they can all be together as a family instead of huddled around a laptop computer.