Soldier-parents in call-up face dilemma

December 22, 1990|By Nolan Walters | Nolan Walters,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of young children of soldiers sent to Saudi Arabia will be opening their presents among little-known relatives or strangers this Christmas.

"I think they are the unsung victims of Desert Shield," says Army Sgt. Lori Moore of Fort Benning, Ga., who at the last minute felt she couldn't leave her three children and now is threatened with a less-than-honorable discharge because she refuses to be deployed overseas.

Much has been written about the untried weaponry the United States is sending to the Saudi desert, but the massive deployment also is testing a more radical innovation -- a fighting force with more married and more women troops and with more children than any in modern history.

All the personnel policies, career plans and brave talk made in the protected bell jar of peace are on trial as military parents -- particularly single parents and dual-career couples -- are sent abroad.

Most are doing as ordered and sending children off with family and friends, but a few, like Sergeant Moore, have found they could not:

"I thought my 3-year-old understood that Mommy was going to help those soldiers on TV. But . . . all she told me was 'We'll be good if we can come home, Mommy.' "

In today's active duty force, there are approximately 2 million service members with about 1.6 million children. The force has 65,000 single parents, mostly men, along with another 60,000 military couples with both husband and wife in uniform.

To help smooth problems, the Pentagon spends about $110 million a year on family support centers, said Gail McGinn, director of the family office.

She agrees that Desert Shield is the "first grand test of our family support networks," and so far, the small number of "horror stories" indicates it's working well, she said.

But the Pentagon has not compiled statistics on the children. And that is proof to Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., that the Defense Department has failed to come to grips with reality.

"They treated it quite casually. The forces really never thought about what kind of support families were going to really need if this type of massive disruption occurred," she said.

Some of the families who are having the toughest time, said Representative Beverly B. Byron, D-Md.-6th, are those left behind at foreign bases when mother or father was transferred to Saudi Arabia.

But Mrs. Byron, whose House Armed Services personnel subcommittee plans hearings on the issue, said her concerns go further.

"As a parent, a grandmother of five, with a son in the service who has just been called, I am concerned about the long-term effect. . . . I don't think any of us have any idea what the long-term consequences are going to be," she said.

Jennifer Williams, who heads the child-care program at Fort Benning, a large infantry post in Georgia, sees the children's budding behavior problems and also wonders.

"None of it has been a major big deal at this point. [But] I can see that if this is continued a long time, we're

going to see more families going home, or families learning new ways of coping, or just losing it," she said.

Nobody has to tell the soldiers how tough it is.

Sgt. Billy Brown, 25, of Macon, Ga., said he won custody of his 4-year-old daughter, Jessica, in a divorce two years ago. Since he was activated with the 48th Infantry Brigade, she has been staying with his parents. He tries to write every day but can't bear to talk to her on the phone.

Pfc. Jennifer Clark of Americus, Ga., another member of the 48th Infantry Brigade, also has turned to her parents to care for 3-year-old Kansas LaTrell Tyson.

If it hadn't been for them, she said, "I probably would have got out on hardship or something, because I wouldn't leave him with just anybody."

That was the route taken by Sergeant Moore.

When word came this fall that her unit was shipping out, she sent her three young children -- Rachel, 3, Denver, 2, and Jessica, 9 months -- to her sister in California. Her husband's long hours as a drill sergeant kept him from taking over, she said.

Sergeant Moore doesn't blame the military.

"Sending the kids out was just part of the job, right? Then after they left, I was just -- I was breathless. How could I do this to my children? They were all excited about going, but then they wanted to come home. . . . I went through a number of feelings, because I thought I was doing the right thing, because as a soldier I wanted to go. But it was directly conflicting with my maternal instincts to be there for my children."

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