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While deployed for six months with the U.S. Navy, Dr. Marion Henry had all the usual worries about being away from her husband and three children at their home in San Diego, California.
But that 2015 deployment — as the Director for Surgical Services on the USNS Mercy — was particularly hard for her, because it meant she missed the first day of school for Jack, then 8, Maggie, then 6, and Katherine, then 3. It was hard, she told TODAY Parents, to miss meeting her children's teachers, knowing which days they had "specials," and getting to know their friends and their friends' parents. When she came home in October, it was "very disorienting," she said.
Within the military community, this kind of sacrifice is normal; parents serving on active duty know that deployment is part of the job, as Henry noted, and with it will be missed birthdays and kindergarten graduations, Tooth Fairy duties, and other milestones in their children's lives.
Outside of the military community, these sacrifices are seen as admirable when they are made by "hero" dads. Moms, however, do not always enjoy that kind of admiration without an asterisk. "How could a mother choose to leave her children?" internet commenters, and sometimes even well-meaning acquaintances, ask.
In response to this story about a little boy rushing into his mother's arms as she returned from deployment with her National Guard unit in Afghanistan, one woman commented on Facebook, "Shame on her for leaving her child."
"She should put her kids before anything else," another wrote. "If she wanted to be a hero she should never have had kids."
It's not a choice, said Henry, who separated from the military as a Commander in the Medical Corps in October of 2017. She now works as an associate professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Arizona in Tucson and as surgeon-in-chief at Banner Diamond Children's Hospital nearby. "No matter what your job is in the military, you will not progress or succeed unless you deploy," she explained.
For families who live on military bases or whose children attend schools on military bases, a mom deploying is normal. Women are serving on active duty more than ever; according to the Department of Defense, after the United States ended the draft and went to an all-volunteer force model for the military, the number of enlisted women went from 2 percent to 14 percent by 2010, and female commissioned officers rose from 4 percent to 16 percent.
At the same time, the number of parents serving on active duty has also grown dramatically since October 2001 due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "To date, a total of over 2.1 million American men and women in uniform have deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)," the DoD reported in 2010. "Of those Service members, approximately 100,000 — 44 percent — are parents."
But many military families do not live on bases or send their children to schools on base. For those children, having a mom who deploys might be much more unusual. "It can be much more of a surprise and stigmatized by outsiders if you are the only mom deploying," said Henry, whose own kids went to a school with a few other military families, but no other moms on active duty.
"My kids felt different — this was not a normal thing for their school," she said. "People were very supportive, but they couldn't really imagine what it entailed at home."
Other former military moms confirmed that living within a military community helped a lot — within that community, no one judges mothers for leaving their kids at home to serve. Civilians don't always understand.
Retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Marché Johnson, a single mother to Kaleb Edwards, now 13, in Montgomery, Alabama, joined the Army Reserve when she was 18 years old. She joined when Kaleb's father was deployed to Baghdad, figuring that the Army Reserve was a good route for her to find security as a single mother. Johnson had been on active duty for less than a year when she was sent on her first deployment for 15 months to Iraq. Kaleb was 2 years old.
Leaving Kaleb with his grandmother was hard for Johnson. "It was the first time I realized that I might not come back home, and he was just 2 years old," she said. Johnson served in a unit in Iraq with just 13 women and 300 men in a combat zone that saw both loss and trauma. She told TODAY Parents that while they were on deployment without much communication home, moms and dads in her unit supported and understood each other's struggles.
"We all were going through the same exact thing," she said. "It didn't matter if you were a mom or dad, a man or a woman." Johnson retired after a second deployment to Afghanistan when Kaleb was 8 and is now running for a city council position in Montgomery.
"It's interesting that people who haven't been through that experience are the ones who make those shaming comments toward moms who deployed," she said. "It's disheartening that people might not value our service because we are moms. We're all still veterans and all still fighting for that one cause."
Megan Harless and her husband Aaron of Williamsburg, Virginia, decided to deploy together in the same brigade instead of taking turns being away from home. They went to Iraq in July 2011 and returned to their two young sons in June 2012.
Harless went through a college ROTC program and then then served in the Army to help her pay for college, something she would not have been able to accomplish otherwise. She believes the military is an important option for young women and mothers who need money for higher education, but it does come with a cost that she and her fellow soldiers understood.
"We all know the realities of being a soldier, and that you're going to deploy," she said. "I never really heard criticism from within the military about moms deploying, and when I do read it online in forums or in comments on posts, I think a lot of that just comes from the outside civilian world where they don't realize that we have taken these things into consideration and that we understand what this means to our family and to us," she said.
Now that she has reached the end of her service in the Army, Grant, 11, Blake, 8, and Natalie, 5, use Harless's old uniforms for dress-up play and career days. She said she sees no lasting impact on the boys from her time away from them when they were young.
To some extent, working moms can't win, whether they are in the military or not, Henry noted. Recently, a mom friend of hers who is a surgeon was asked by her son's elementary school teacher whether her son might behave better at school if she worked less. "That's ludicrous," she said.