STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
This Memorial Day, many military parents are away from their families as they serve a second or even third deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. The separation is even harder for recent mothers, some of whom have had to leave for war just four months after their babies are born. As Brian Mann reports from North Country Public Radio, some lawmakers say that in order to keep the best recruits, the Pentagon should expand maternity benefits.
BRIAN MANN: When Army Secretary Peter Geren appeared before the Senate Armed Service Committee last February, he faced questions about body armor and budgets, but lawmakers also pressed him for answers about babies.
BEN NELSON: New mothers are facing a continuing, difficult decision between motherhood and their service to their country.
MANN: That's Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, who questioned Geren about the Army's policy of deploying female soldiers to Iraq just 16 weeks after they give birth.
NELSON: Clearly that has to be reviewed, because it's got to have some impact on people deciding whether to get in or stay in if they have to get an extended deferment in order to have family.
MANN: Women now make up roughly 15 percent of the armed services. According to a 2002 report by the Government Accountability Office, as many as one in 10 active-duty women become pregnant every year. Those women can take a voluntary discharge and leave behind their military careers. Army medic Amy Shaw says the choice is wrenching.
AMY SHAW: I grew up with a mom that stayed at home every day. That's the way I always pictured myself. So, it was a lot for me not to call it quits and to get out.
MANN: Shaw stayed in, knowing she would have to go to Iraq. She and her husband, also a soldier, deployed at the same time, leaving behind their four- month-old son, Connor James.
SHAW: He probably doesn't remember mom and dad because, like, four-and-a- half months that I spend with him since he was born.
MANN: Shaw's son lived with his grandmother for 15 months. Shaw, who just returned home to Fort Riley, Kansas, says she went to Iraq because she felt a sense of duty, but she's not sure she'd make the same choice again.
SHAW: You do miss all the firsts, like him walking, talking and getting teeth and things like that that most parents actually enjoy seeing.
MANN: Military moms say they get a lot of criticism about their parenting choices, especially from people outside the Army. While Shaw was in Iraq, her hometown paper published an article about her service. It triggered a slew of vicious letters, accusing her of being a bad mother. Shaw's mom, Joan Barenwald(ph), was furious.
JOAN BARENWALD: I mean, they pretty much compared my daughter to Britney Spears with motherhood and saying that, you know, basically she left her child.
MANN: Jessica Perdew with the National Military Families Association says the Pentagon has to find ways to help military moms if they hope to keep them in uniform.
JESSICA PERDEW: Women that are in the military now are serving in billets and in areas that are absolutely critical.
MANN: Perdew had a baby when she was a Marine during the First Gulf War. She argues that new moms should be allowed to work at bases stateside for at least 12 months after giving birth. But for many women, the conflict between soldiering and motherhood extends well beyond that first year. Repeat deployments are forcing them to make complicated decisions about when or if to have children.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: It's hard. Yeah, it's funny. I call it my great balancing act.
MANN: Jennifer Williams, a first sergeant with the 10th Mountain Division based in northern New York. Just 11 months ago, she returned from a deployment to South Korea. Now she's leaving her husband and her three-year-old daughter, Reilly again, this time for a 15-month tour in Iraq.
WILLIAMS: When I first came back from Korea, I had wanted to have a second child, and my husband said: You need to know your deployment schedule first, because I can't be home with a newborn and a toddler. I'm sorry, I can't do both at the same time.
MANN: Williams uses the telephone and videos and a Web cam to keep in touch with her child, but she says the first long separation was confusing and frightening for Reilly.
WILLIAMS: When I came home, she seemed to be in shock. Like she knew who I was. She ran to me, but when I picked her up, she just kept staring like she couldn't believe it and kept looking at everyone like, she's supposed to be in the computer.
MANN: Army officials say they are trying to help military moms. They've promised to cut deployment times for all soldiers from 15 months down to a year.
MANN: Army Secretary Peter Geren told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he hopes to give new mothers slightly longer deferments after they give birth, allowing six months before overseas deployments instead of four.
PETER GEREN: We have tasked the Army staff to examine that policy and examine the impact of a change in that policy.
MANN: Jennifer Williams says that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, military women have developed an unofficial support network, swapping tips for helping their young children.
WILLIAMS: Even some things with, like, the perfume. I've had women say, you know, get a perfume or like a scented lotion, and wear it all the time so that they connect that smell with you, and if you leave it at home, when they get really lonesome, if they smell it, it makes them feel better.
MANN: They Williams brings up the unthinkable. If something happens in Iraq and she doesn't make it home, Williams says that fragrance will leave her little girl, Reilly, with a tangible memory of her mom. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.
INSKEEP: You can heard more from Brian Mann's interview with First Sergeant Jennifer Williams at NPR.org.