Parents' call to duty raises worry for welfare of children left behind WAR IN THE GULF

February 15, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- This weekend, Carolynne Zales will have her 3-week-old son baptized.

Next week, she'll stop nursing the baby and start him on a bottle.

And the following week, with photos and videos of tiny Gene Vincent Zales II packed in her rucksack, the bright-eyed 19-year-old mother and Army reservist will report to a military post in Virginia to receive her marching orders.

"I feel like they're cheating me out of my life," says Ms. Zales, of Williamsport, Pa., whose husband of seven months, Gene Vincent Zales, was deployed to the Persian Gulf in August. "My husband and I missed out on our first Thanksgiving together, our first Christmas, our first New Year's, each other's birthdays. He wasn't here for the baby being born.

"And now they're trying to take me away from my son."

With women in the military in record numbers, the gulf war has given rise to a number of poignant, and sometimes problematic, cases involving family issues. For the first time there are tens of thousands of cases where both parents, or single parents, have been called to duty, raising concerns among legislators and health-care professionals about the welfare of the "gulf children" left behind.

"We're looking at each situation case-by-case," says Mary K. Eder, public-affairs officer at Fort Lee, adding that more than 300 reservists who reported for duty there in January were allowed to return home for various reasons, including inability to find a caretaker for a child.

Ms. Zales holds out little hope of such an exemption since her mother-in-law, a widow with whom the mother and child have been living, has agreed to take custody of young Gene while his parents are away. Ms. Zales' only hope now is that she'll be TC stationed somewhere in the United States rather than overseas.

Ms. Zales volunteered for the Army two years ago as a way to finance college. But she switched from active duty to the reserves in October, hoping to avoid the very scenario being played out now.

"I thought I'd be the last to go," she says.

In fact, on Jan. 20, when she received orders to report in less than two weeks to Fort Lee, near Richmond, Va., she thought it was a mistake. For one thing, she was still pregnant.

After the birth of her child four days later, and with the help of members of Congress, she won from the Pentagon a 42-day extension, the standard maternity leave allowed by the military. She is to report to duty the first week of March.

A records and parts specialist, Ms. Zales says she would go to Saudi Arabia "in a minute" if the Army would send back her husband, a diesel mechanic who repairs tanks and trucks near the front lines. "If something happens to both of us, my son could become an orphan," she says.

"I look down at his face, and he's so innocent," she says. "He has no idea what's going on. If I'm gone for a year, he won't even remember me when I come home."

*

Even those who support opening up all military roles, including combat, to women are expressing concerns about sending new parents to military assignments. Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., recently asked Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to grant servicewomen and servicemen an 18-week parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a child.

Last month, Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., and Representative Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced bills to protect children from becoming orphans by prohibiting both parents in a family or single parents from participation in Operation Desert Storm. (Sixty percent of the single parents stationed in the gulf are men.)

But Mr. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, wrote last week in a letter that they "strongly opposed" the proposed changes, saying that those in the armed services today are volunteers.

"They understand that when they volunteered to serve, they freely assumed the duty and obligation to place themselves in harm's way when called upon to do so. That shared obligation is crucial to the unit cohesion that is the foundation of our combat capability," they wrote.

Many health-care professionals, however, are deeply concerned about the foundation built between young children and their parents, especially mothers, when there is separation in infancy.

"Taking a child away from its mother that early is a very inhuman -- and inhumane -- thing to do," says Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "I don't care how good Grandma is, it's still not the same as Mom.

"Surely we can be civil enough so that if a mother has just given birth, you don't take that mother over. You take other people first. And if both mother and father are involved, you don't take both."

Dr. Gisela Booth, a child psychologist and professor at Northwestern Medical School in Chicago, says, "It's an unforgiveable thing. At this stage, infant-mother bonding takes place at an intensive rate."

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