While motherhood itself can be a full-time job, some mothers make the choice to also serve in the United States Armed Forces. These women juggle the trials of parenting with the responsibility of maintaining operations, coping with deployment and the uncertainty that can come with it all.
Kaila Kelly gets choked up when she thinks about her son’s next birthday.
This fall, Easton will turn 5. He’ll have a party with his friends – probably Paw Patrol themed, his favorite. He’ll tear open presents and gobble up cake. It will be the same simple fun as any other 5-year-old’s birthday bash, except his mom won’t be there.
Kaila will be on an Air Force base, half the world away.
Technical Sgt. Kelly, who works in aviation resource management, is preparing for her second overseas deployment. In 2011, two years after joining the Air Force, she spent two months in Iraq and another two months in Kuwait. It was an overall positive experience, she said, an eye-opening venture that gave her a deeper appreciation for her country and her freedoms. And while she’s expecting a similar sense this summer as she heads to Qatar, this deployment will be different.
This time, she’s a mom.
“It’s been a lot to think about,” said Kaila, who grew up in Warren, Mass. “I have my moments where I dwell on things, times where I can’t stop thinking about it. How am I not going to kiss him goodnight? How am I not going to take him to school? All the little things – it’s so hard to think about all that stuff.”
The deployment of military women with children is a growing phenomenon, according to an article in Military Medicine. Women represent anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of all active and reserve military members, and more than 40 percent of military women have children.
But overseas deployment isn’t the only separation from their children moms in the military face. Senior Airman Debra Patterson, of Hudson, Mass., had been home from Basic Training for eight months, waiting for her job school assignment, when she found out she was pregnant. Her daughter Ryan was 10 months old when Debra had to leave to attend military training school in Mississippi. At the time, Ryan was just learning to walk, and Debra was just getting the hang of being a mom.
“Nothing is worse than leaving knowing you’re gone for more than a day or two. Especially when they are that little and you know there are so milestones they’re going to hit, and you’re going to miss,” said Debra, who was away from Ryan for four months while she studied finance in the Air National Guard.
Debra watched her baby grow on video calls, taking part in daily rituals through her cell phone screen. “I got to FaceTime her really briefly at night, right at her tubby time. I’d see her get ready for bed. A lot of times she wouldn’t even acknowledge the phone.”
She returned home to a “whole new baby,” she said. “She was running, talking, climbing. Developmentally, she changed tenfold. She looked at me like, ‘I think I know you, but I’m mad at you.’”
Soldier Mom, Military Spouse
Kaila met her husband Mike when they were both stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. They immediately hit it off, and their bond strengthened when they deployed together to the Middle East. They returned stateside in February 2012 and married in a courthouse wedding the following year, right before Mike left for Djibouti, Africa.
Just weeks after his deployment, Kaila got some surprising news: she was pregnant.
“I told him over the phone,” she remembered. “We were excited. We wanted to start a family.”
But when the first ultrasound revealed there was no heartbeat, Kaila’s excitement turned to heartache. She had to again call her husband, nearly 7,000 miles away, this time with the news that she was miscarrying.
Mike’s commander’s wife met her at the hospital so she wasn’t alone.
“It meant a lot that she had some support when I couldn’t be there, and that’s one thing I will say is great about the military. We’re there for each other. But there are times when it’s terrible. That was a super challenging time,” said Mike.
Mike’s next deployment, again to Djibouti, presented different challenges. The Kellys had become parents to Easton, and he was 3 years old. Deployments are different after you have a kid, they learned. One parent feels they are missing out, and the other feels they’re picking up the slack.
“Life here continues,” Mike said of the months he spent away from his wife and son. “Easton wakes up, dresses himself, pours himself a bowl of cereal now -- all these little things he didn’t do yet when I left. You felt like life stopped here when you left, but it continues. He grows, he changes.”
When Kaila leaves this summer, the roles will reverse. “Now, she’s going to be the one to have to come home and figure out what we’ve established,” said Mike.
Tough, But Worth It
Debra Patterson was in her late 20s when joined the Air National Guard, initially planning on going into military intelligence. At the time, she was working full-time at an insurance company, feeling burnt out and unfulfilled. Her husband, Doug, who’s been in the military for 16 years, helped inspire her to enlist.
Two years later, she landed a full-time civilian job with the Air Force, working as a financial analyst at Hanscom Air Force Base.
With Doug, an Army captain, being active duty, Debra lives with knowing he – or even both of them – could be deployed at any time. She admits it can be stressful, but she’s happy with her decision to serve. She believes it’s made her a better mom.
“You have a lot of pressure when you’re a first-time parent. But I think I actually came back from school a lot calmer,” she said. “When you have to focus on being the best you can be in your job, and be the best parent you can be 2,000 miles away, you have to learn balance. I think it makes you realize that every moment is special.”
Debra is able to take Ryan to daycare on the base with her, and down the road will have the opportunity to transfer GI Bill benefits to her daughter.
“My daughter is growing up seeing two people – her parents – doing something selfless; something for their country. Whatever she decides to do with her life, I’m glad to be setting that example,” she said. “It’s tough at times, but totally doable as a mom. You’d be surprised how many women with children join.”
Kaila made up her mind to serve when she was 14 and she witnessed 9/11. She joined the Air Force at 19. But once she became a mother, she started questioning that path. When it came to re-enlist – and she had a 1-year-old son – the choice was difficult.
“It wasn’t just me and what I wanted to do with my life anymore; now I had this baby. And I’d think, how could I go six months, or even longer, away from him? I would stay awake at night thinking about it – do I get out, or do I stay in?”
She left it up to the flip of a coin, not because it would settle the question, but because she hoped, in that brief moment that the coin was in the air, she’d have clarity. “I threw it in the air and said ‘heads I stay, tails I go.’ It landed on tails, and I said, ‘I’m staying.”
She knows her decision affects her son, and feels both pride and guilt. This year will be Easton’s second holiday season with one parent overseas. Last Christmas, Mike was in Djibouti and this Christmas, Kaila will be in Qatar.
Easton’s Daddy Doll, which he’d cling to every night while Mike was deployed, pressing its tummy to hear his dad’s voice, will become his Mommy Doll when Kaila leaves this summer.
“He didn’t choose this, both of us did. It’s what we signed up for, not him – so I think that leaves some guilt,” said Kaila. “But he’s also seeing that you can follow your dreams, even when it’s really hard.”