The ultimate sacrifice

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Oct 23, 2001 12:00 AM
In long lines for security checkpoints, many of us are learning the answer to the question President Bush, in his landmark Sept. 20 speech before Congress, posed: "Americans are asking, what is expected of us?" But few of us stateside will be asked for anything like the sacrifices 14-month-old Kody is being asked to make.

For most of his young life, Kody Kravitz has shared a Pennsylvania apartment with his mom and dad, his half-sister Shaiyann, and their pet snakes. His father is a GI, and his mother joined the Army Reserves while she was still in high school. So now, Kody is parentless, at least for the duration. His home has dissolved -- with his half-sister packed off to her mom's house, Kody will go and live with Grandma. The snakes are still looking for placement.

Kody, of course, has no idea why his mom and dad and sister suddenly disappeared. "There is no way to explain this to Kody; he's just too little to understand," his mom, Jaime Strathmeyer, told The New York Times. "... By the time I get home, he'll be calling my mother Mommy and my father Daddy."

Kody is not alone. Suzanna and Mary Connolly are 2-year-old twins. Daddy's been deployed, and their mom, in the Navy Reserves, struggles with what will happen when she is called. The plan is to send the girls to her brother in Milwaukee, whom they have never met. Arlene Innis is a 27-year-old single mom who joined the Army a year ago so she could better provide for her two kids, Shante, 7, and Sharica, 4. Now she is trying to figure out how to explain that they might have to "go to Grandma's house for a little while." Like six months, or a year. In other words, for a small child, an eternity.

These are just a few of the thousands of children who are being asked to make pretty much the ultimate sacrifice, from a child's point of view: to risk not only one parent but both parents, or the only parent they have. In World War II, David Blankenhorn points out, the country agonized and debated before sending married fathers to fight and die for their country. Now we send single mothers off to war, and nobody even raises a peep of concern or discussion.

It's not easy to find out how many children are so affected. According to Brian Mitchell's 1998 book, "Women in the Military" (Regnery), there are 24,000 single moms and about an equal number of single custodial dads, plus more than 50,000 dual-service couples, who must also arrange to leave children with friends and relatives when called up. Conservatively, call it 150,000 American children.

The effects of long-term separation from both parents (or a child's only parent) are themselves deeply traumatic. It is an immense, unremarked toll of suffering that children are being asked to pay.

Here's my question: Why? If it were necessary, then of course, it would be different. If it were necessary, toss me an AK-47 and I would figure out what to do with it. But is it necessary? Are we as a nation in such desperate straits that we must ask single moms to fight and die for our country? Do we feel good about asking Kody and thousands of other young kids to risk both of their parents, or their only parent, for us?

And if it is not necessary, is it even a civilized thing to do? Yes, I know, these women all volunteered. Recruited under slogans like, Join the Army, Be a Journalist! But still, by the strict demands of contractual morality we may be justified at holding these mothers to their word.

That these women are bravely willing to live up to their commitments, I do not doubt. Their willingness to serve is commendable. Can we say the same about our automatic willingness to order Kody's mom, and thousands like her, into harm's way?