by Meredith O'Brien
If it seemed as though it was ripped from news headlines, that’s because it was.
A recent storyline on Army Wives  dramatized the plight of the military’s single parents – who become single parents after having joining the armed services – and how difficult it is for them to find childcare for their offspring when they’re slated to deploy abroad and can’t take the kid with them.
Given that the Associated Press, citing government officials, said “there are more than 70,500 single parents on active duty in the U.S. military, about 5 percent of all service members,” the issue of single parents in the Army  having to find childcare isn’t a teeny tiny problem as the United States continues to conduct wars on two fronts and needs soldiers to fight them. The New York Times also reported that more than 100,000 female soldiers who have served/are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are mothers, adding, “The vast majority are primary caregivers, and a third are single mothers.”
“I couldn’t show up to the tarmac with Maddie in my arms.”
Those were the words of fictional Army Specialist Amber Stiles who was arrested on the Charleston Army post when she didn’t report for her overseas deployment on Army Wives. Her 2-year-old daughter was taken into state custody where officials later threatened to find the girl new adoptive parents because her mother faced jail time for going AWOL. “My mother was going to take care of her in Tallahassee, that’s my hometown,” Stiles told Army Wives’ Claudia Joy Holden, wife of the post commander and a law school student completing her legal degree. “But she got sick and had to back out . . . She’s on dialysis now, three times a week.”
“I tried to find someone in Charleston, neighbors, people from church,” Stiles continued, noting that when she first learned of her pregnancy, the baby daddy took off. When the deployment extension that Army officials had given her to straighten out her childcare situation ran out, Stiles, who’d gone to Florida in a last-ditch attempt to try to locate a caregiver, returned to Charleston and was arrested by military police. “All I wanted was to be a good soldier and a good mother,” Stiles said. “Why can’t I be both?”
Though Claudia Joy was serving two roles in the Stiles case – helping Stiles as the head of the post’s military family advocacy group, and assisting Stiles’ attorney (who’s also Claudia Joy’s law school professor) with her court martial case – she tried to play it neutral, not bashing the Army while trying to do what’s best for this soldier and her child. Throughout the case, Claudia Joy said she received e-mails from people who not only wanted the Army to court martial Specialist Stiles, but “questioned why she even had a baby when she couldn’t take care of her.”
While meeting with a hard-nosed post official, who was filling in for Claudia Joy’s husband who’s serving in Afghanistan, Claudia Joy agreed with the official that Stiles had an obligation to the Army, but added, “She also has an obligation to her child. Does she have to choose between the two?”
The Army Wives’ story mirrored last fall’s real life tale of 21-year-old Alexis Hutchinson, an Army cook from Savannah who had arranged for her mother to watch her 10-month-old son while Hutchinson was deployed in Afghanistan. (She said her son’s father “had never been involved” with raising the child.) However in November 2009, her mother had second thoughts about the arrangement – she was caring for her own child, and a sick sibling as well as running a daycare center from her home, the New York Times reported  – and decided she couldn’t watch her grandson after all, leaving Hutchinson’s daycare situation in the lurch at the last minute. As Hutchinson scrambled around for an adequate childcare arrangement for her child, she missed her deployment and was arrested, charged with being AWOL, dereliction of duty, insubordination and threatened with court martial and jail, the Times reported.
The Associated Press  reported that a spokesman for her Army post said, “This case wasn’t about a soldier having to choose between her duty to the nation and her family. There is evidence both from Pvt. Hutchinson and her fellow soldiers to indicate she had no intentions of deploying.”
Hutchinson’s case  gained national publicity and by February, the Army opted not to court martial her and instead discharged her, and she lost some of her benefits. “Legal experts said it would have been extraordinary if Specialist Hutchinson had been court-martialed over childcare issues, saying they could not recall a similar case,” the New York Times reported.  “However, hundreds and perhaps thousands of soldiers have been administratively discharged for such problems in recent years.”
So what’s the answer to this thorny problem of single parents who have problems finding care for their children when they’re supposed to deploy to an international theater? Certainly not the option offered by one Army major general serving in Northern Iraq who, late last year, issued a controversial directive banning pregnancy among soldiers  under his command, threatening that a soldier who “becomes pregnant or impregnates another service member, including married couples assigned to the same unit” with a possible court martial or disciplinary action. After four female U.S. Senators  vigorously objected to the policy and called for its reversal, the major general pulled back on his court-martial-for-pregnancy policy  saying, “I see absolutely no circumstance where I would punish a female soldier by court martial for a violation.”
While the Army may be trying to implement policies to help the mothers within its ranks – like extending maternity leave  for new moms from four to six months, allowing more military families to accompany their soldiers to South Korea and offering more daycare – it seems like they still have a very long way to go.