Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- In a world of uncertainty and mayhem, the single constant about which we thought we could be reasonably confident has been that mothers would nurture their children.

We have been disabused of that quaint notion in myriad ways, but nowhere so vividly as in today's military. As a spate of recent news stories reveals, the Pentagon has become complicit in helping thousands of mothers abandon and potentially make orphans of their children.

Since 2002, about 16,000 single mothers have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. What kind of country sends mothers of young children, especially single mothers, to war?

We pretend to nobler notions, of course. Single parents aren't supposed to be accepted for enlistment. But there are ways around inconvenient rules. Single parents can sign up as long as they're willing to sign away their children.

That is, they can enlist if they give up custody to someone else.

Stories about mothers leaving their children for war -- in which fathers are almost never mentioned -- are both heartbreaking and pathetic. Heartbreaking because the children suffer immensely; pathetic because women have been sold a bill of goods.

A recent Washington Post story featured Sgt. Leana Nishimura, a single mom who left her three children for Iraq. Although she returned eight months ago, her oldest -- a 9-year-old boy -- still suffers separation anxiety and fears from her deployment. When Nishimura's name was called at a recent ceremony to accept an award for service, the boy clung to her leg and cried.

Said Nishimura: ``He went from having one parent to having no parents, basically. People have said, 'Thank you so much for your sacrifice.' But it's the children who have had more of a sacrifice.''

Indeed.

Not only do children suffer feelings of abandonment, the consequences of which can be long-term and life-altering, but they live with the daily terror of someone killing their mother. We even have a name for the phenomenon -- pediatric postwar syndrome.

While children suffer, some military mothers can't offer much help. Women returning from Iraq are reporting post-traumatic stress disorder in numbers comparable to men, according to the Veterans Administration. One of the reasons cited by analysts is that women are being exposed to combat as never before.

Another recent story -- this one in The Hartford (Conn.) Courant -- told of Daiana Rivera, whose 16-month-old baby boy has to compete for attention with the demons that followed his mother home from Iraq. Rivera is seeing a therapist weekly, but says she'll never recover the time lost with her son as she deals with treatment and detachment.


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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