Mothers in Combat Boots

By Eberstadt, Mary | Policy Review, February-March 2010 | Go to article overview

Mothers in Combat Boots


Eberstadt, Mary, Policy Review


IN NOVEMBER 2009, one of the uglier fruits of the current practice of seeding mothers into the American military burst briefly onto the national stage. Ordered to Afghanistan from Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia, an Army cook named Alexis Hutchinson refused to go. A 21-year-old single mother, she explained that there was no one to care for her infant son because initial plans to leave him with her own mother had fallen through.

What happened next should disturb anyone who has so far succeeded in ignoring the fact that the United States now sends soldier-mothers off to war. Specialist Hutchinson was arrested and threatened with court martial and her son was temporarily placed in foster care--because, as the Fort Stewart spokesman explained, the 30-day extension that she had been granted was "plenty of time" to find some other babysitter for that ten-month-old while the only parent seemingly present in his life went off to Afghanistan.

This is one face of contemporary battle that no one wants to contemplate point-blank. Nevertheless, face it somebody should. Ever since Congress in the 1970s passed a law allowing women with dependent children to enlist in the military, the collision visible in the Hutchinson case between motherhood and soldiering has been waiting in the wings. The wonder is not that an Army cook and mother would choose staying stateside with her child over her deployment. It is rather that--given two wars and current American military policy--more cases like Hutchinson's have not erupted already.

According to an October report issued by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 30,000 single mothers have served in those two war zones as of March 2009. That is 30,000 mothers forced to choose, as Hutchinson's lawyer has put it, between their children and their service careers--a dilemma captured perfectly in a photograph that appeared alongside news accounts of the case. It showed what once would have seemed an unthinkable representation of Madonna and child: Spc. Hutchinson, a female soldier, cradling her baby in classic maternal pose.

Once, pregnancy itself was automatically grounds for discharge from the services. Today it is not. Now pregnant soldiers can request such a discharge, but it is up to their commanders to decide whether to issue one (and whether it is honorable or dishonorable). As to maternity leave, the services generally offer new mothers six weeks beginning the day they leave the hospital. After that they can receive deployment deferrals of anywhere from four months (Air Force) to six months (Army, Marines) to 12 (Navy). Note that of all these, only the Navy offers a deferral that even meets the American Academy of Pediatric's guideline for breastfeeding, 12 months. Bear in mind too that current deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, at 15 months in length, are longer than any of these deferrals.

It is all well and good to say, as critics did, that Spc. Hutchinson got what was coming to her--that she should have thought of such an outcome before she joined the Army, or considered it again when she got pregnant and decided to keep the baby. Also true, as other armchair moralizers observed, is that the baby's father--whoever and wherever he is--has not faced nearly the opprobrium delivered to Hutchinson, despite being a rather obvious missing link in this pathetic spectacle. For the record, no one was harder on Hutchinson in public than other men and women in uniform, who understood better than the rest of the country that if everyone acted as she did, there would be no military to do any defending in the first place. As one Army veteran and radio host put it in a printable example, "The court of public opinion has spoken and said, the military should get rid of her and anyone else who feels that they can't live up to their obligation. We can't win a war with soldiers who refuse deployment. She needs to pay for her crime."

All of these opinions are correct as far as they go. …

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