Army Mom Refuses To Deploy

Army Specialist Alexis Hutchinson is facing a special court martial for missing her deployment to Iraq. The army says Hutchinson went AWOL. But she says she deliberately didn't4 go because she couldn't find adequate child care for the year that she would be away. Host Michel Martin speaks to Hutchinson’s civilian attorney Rai Sue Sussman about the charges.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we turn to another very different story about women in leadership. First lady Michelle Obama and the wife of the Vice President Joe Biden revived a tradition begun by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt this week, hosting a tea to showcase the accomplishments of military women and the wives of men in the service. The first lady took a moment to recognize women she said had broken the brass ceiling.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: In this room alone, we have the first female four-star general. We have the first woman in the Navy to be promoted to master-chief, the first woman in the Army Reserve to be promoted to the general officer rank. We have the first woman in the Army to receive the Expert Field Medical Badge. We have the first African-American woman to serve as chief nurse at Walter Reed Hospital - and so many more firsts and onlys. And that's the result of your hard work and your courage and your persistence.

MARTIN: But even as women reach new height and rank in the military, the service is still grappling with some of the realities of the way people live today, in which women may be service members and parents - and not just parents, but single parents. The latest available data from the Defense Department counts more than 20,000 single moms on active duty. There are nearly 50,000 men who are. And right, now one of those mothers is struggling to balance her obligation to the armed forces with her obligation to her child.

Army Specialist Alexis Hutchinson is a 21-year-old single mother who expected her mother to care for her 10-month-old son, Kamani, when her unit deployed. But her mother changed her mind. Now her military career may be in jeopardy. She could face desertion charges, and her son could go to temporary foster care. Hutchinson's civilian attorney, Rai Sue Sussman, joins us now to talk more about this case. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. RAI SUE SUSSMAN (Attorney): Thank you.

MARTIN: First of all, I think most people expect that a service member who faces deployment should have a plan in place. Did Specialist Hutchinson have such a plan in place, and what happened?

Ms. SUSSMAN: She did have a plan, and in anticipation, she had taken her baby, Kamani, to stay with her own mother for the duration of her deployment. However, after a week of caring for him on her own, Specialist Hutchinson's mother found herself overwhelmed and backed out, and said that she couldn't take him for the long period of a 12 month deployment, after all.

MARTIN: Can you tell us why she felt so overwhelmed?

Ms. SUSSMAN: She has a lot of other family responsibilities. She also has a daughter of her own who has health problems and is special needs. She had found out that her sister, Specialist Hutchinson's aunt, had just found out that she had serious health problems, and the aunt had asked Alexis Hutchinson's mother for extra help in the upcoming months.

MARTIN: So what happened - that? After - she did take the child initially, and she just determined - she just felt she was not up to that responsibility, what happened?

Ms. SUSSMAN: She informed Specialist Hutchinson, who informed her command, and she was given an extension to try to find someone else. However, shortly before she deployed, she was told that she would not get that extension after all, and that she would need to find someone to care for her child within 24 hours, and she needed to be on the plane. Because she was scared and didn't want to abandon her child, even if she knew it was wrong to disobey orders, she felt that she could not get on that plane. However, within a day, Specialist Hutchinson returned to Army control with her child, and that is when the Army arrested her, put her in jail, and took her infant away from her.

MARTIN: What charges is Specialist Hutchinson facing?

Ms. SUSSMAN: She has not been charged yet, but we have been told that she is facing a special court martial for charges of missing movement, AWOL, desertion and I believe that is it.

MARTIN: Now, there's been some dispute about whether she was, in fact, granted an extension in order to find appropriate care for her son. You're saying she was not granted an extension to come up with more time to come up with a better plan.

Ms. SUSSMAN: It is complicated. She was initially granted an extension, and she thought she had until mid-November or late November. However, a day before she deployed, she was told that she was not getting that extension after all.

MARTIN: What do you think should happen now? And you have to know that this case has gotten quite a lot of attention in the days since Specialist Hutchinson was arrested. And there are some who say that this is absurd, that any parent who works understands that sometimes, child-care plans fall through, and you just cannot anticipate everything in life. But others say that you cannot enlist in the military while this country is fighting two wars, particularly in the area in which she is serving, and not expect to deploy and not expect to have a plan in place.

Ms. SUSSMAN: Right. Specialist Hutchinson fully understood that she was going to deploy. I think this is an example of how over-stressed the military is - to treat this baby and mother in a less-than-understanding way, solely to get enough boots on the ground in Afghanistan. And this particular chain of command I believe handled the situation without using the discretion and fairness that they have under military law to handle these cases individually. And in a case like this, when you have a young infant involved, I believe that they really should have more understanding of the difficult situation that military parents face.

MARTIN: What about - is there a father in the picture? Does this child have a father who is in a position to care for the child?

Ms. SUSSMAN: In the of Kamani, there is no one with paternity rights over Kamani. And again, we have a very young Army, and I think probably Alexis Hutchinson is not the only one in this situation.

MARTIN: What are your next steps here?

Ms. SUSSMAN: I'm working to try to persuade the Army. We're in conversation to see if the Army will, you know, is open at all to administratively discharging with a general - under honorable conditions, given the situation that she faced that she's already undergone. In my experience, it is extremely unusual for someone who returns voluntarily, after less than a day of being AWOL, to have their liberty constrained by being placed in jail, by having their child taken from them. And even the restrictions she's had since she got out of jail about a week and a half ago have been pretty harsh by Army standards.

The Army told me, last week, that when they took the baby, that he was going into foster care. I have since discovered that they actually did not, as far as I can understand, have Child Protective Services involved. And they basically took the baby and placed it in a day care on base, which I'm not sure is authorized.

MARTIN: And I understand, and I appreciate this, but I also have to press the question. There are those who would argue: She knew when she undertook this job, which she was not required to do, there is not a draft in the United States. She chose this particular line of work, that this particular line of work has particular responsibilities, and I think the question that some would have, did she in good faith expect to fulfill those responsibilities or not? And if she did, did she take appropriate steps to ensure that she could fulfill her responsibilities?

Ms. SUSSMAN: Alexis did join. I mean, she was a - she was very into the military. She was in the junior ROTC for three years in high school in Oakland and joined the Army right out of high school and hasn't had any disciplinary problems.

She did plan on deploying, and this fell through, and she felt that she was not treated fairly when this situation came up.

I think that it reflects poorly on our Army's ability to manage and respect its own troops and support its own troops.

MARTIN: Rai Sue Sussman is a civilian attorney representing Specialist Alexis Hutchinson. Rai Sue Sussman joined us from her home office in California. Ms. Sussman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SUSSMAN: All right, thank you.

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