Capt. Mom goes to war

Posted: Jul 06, 2003 12:00 AM
Perhaps in honor of the Fourth of July, Family Circle in its current issue tells the story of Capt. Mom going to war. Melody Charles not only had a 1-year-old, but also was 8 months pregnant when the Twin Towers fell. "My officer in charge told me he would try to give me as much time with the baby as he could," Melody said, "but I had to be ready to go by spring."

The Army is in the business of fighting and killing, not nurturing. Women as well as men who join are naturally well-drilled in putting first things first. As a captain married to a major, Melody was required to file plans about who would take care of the kids if both she and her husband were called to serve. Fortunately, her country did not ask that sacrifice, this time.

So this is what her children sacrificed for you and me: At 9 months old, Jonah was too young to comprehend his mother's absence, according to the story. But 2-year-old Jacob understood perfectly well when Mommy told him she was leaving.

"He ran out of the bedroom screaming, 'No, Daddy! No, Daddy!'" husband Mike recalls.

Mom and Dad held him all night. The next morning, when Jacob woke up, Mommy was gone. He walked into the bathroom with his blanket and lay down on the rug she stands on when getting ready for work.

For two days, Jacob threw up after every meal. Every day he asked, "Where's Mama?" "Mama's in the war," Daddy replied.

For Mama in the war, it was also hard, of course. In her Uzbekistan base camp, Melody cried herself to sleep every night.

"It helped knowing that other people with children were in just as much agony," Melody says now. "You get through it because one day, it's your turn to cry and the next day it's someone else's."

Melody chose this way of life. Plus, Melody had the consolation of a whole Army of people telling her she was doing the right thing: "If I'm not willing to fight to protect our nation and our way of life, it won't be there for my children. So by going, I'm really caring for them."

After six months, Capt. Mom returned home.

"My baby didn't recognize me," Melody recalls. "He wouldn't let me pick him up that first day." Jacob did remember her, and reacted by alternating between "being overly needy and pushing her away."

Today family life is back to normal: Capt. Mom, Major Dad and kids are close-knit and loving, deeply appreciative of the time they have together, aware that simple togetherness cannot, for a military Mom and Dad, be taken for granted.

A happy story of noble sentiments, patriotic sacrifice and family love, right? Why else would it appear in a magazine called Family Circle?

Yes, it is a story of all these things, but something more, too. It is an ongoing story about the process of convincing women that there are other, more important bonds than the one we have with our babies. Any mother cannot help noticing what a horror story lies at the heart of this patriotic, upbeat narrative.

No, you cannot blame the Army. It is doing its job, based on policies set by civilians. Nor can you blame Melody for following through on her vow to serve her country in time of war.

So I hope the upbeat ending is true -- that Jacob and baby Jonah do not suffer any permanent damage from Mommy's mysterious six-month disappearance. I know the Army, as it persuades young women to sign up and re-enlist, has no clue whether or not this is true. But surely for Jacob and Jonah, a six-month sentence of suffering is more than enough.