How do you think a soldier feels that has served his or her nation for many years and suddenly loses custody of the child while she is on another continent? The number of suicides in the military has more than doubled since 9/11. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta associated this with the fact that the Sevicemembers now have to be deployed multiple times continuously to meet the Military’s mission. Once the war in Iraq began and the soldiers started being deployed, the legal cases in the courts related to child custody began to flourish. The war in Iraq was one of the wars that required some Servicemembers to be deployed for long periods of 12 to 15 months. This took most by surprise and there were many Servicemembers who did not have an organized plan for their family members. The Department of Defense makes it mandatory that every Servicemember had to prepare a “Family Care Plan” (this was a breakdown of who will take care of the children while the Servicemember is deployed and how they take care of the children, which began in 1992). In the same year the Department of Defense stopped the recruitment of single parents in the military. If a Servicemember becomes a single parent while in military service, she can continue serving.
What the Servicemembers did not know is that the Family Care Plan Power of Attorney document is more of a recommendation then a legally binding contract; it has no validity in court. There are many single mothers who learned this through legal litigation, and therefore were in the midst of two wars at once; the physical war in the Middle East and the legal war for their children back home. Many of them inevitably lost custody of their children. While the Servicemember is in a combat zone, it is at the discretion of their chain of command if they are sent home to participate in the court hearings, and many were denied this opportunity.
Many of these mothers were single mothers, custodians of their children from birth, and they had many years of military service. Others had become single mothers while in the military service. The fact that the Service Member Civil Relief Act does not protect Servicemembers against child custody cases led to the courts to take decisions without having the other part present at the time of the hearings. When these Servicemembers came back from war, they found young children who did not remember who their mothers were (Especially those with children under 5 years of age). Parents with court orders allowing the mother to visit her children only a couple of hours per week, limiting exposure. Some children between the ages of 6 and 11 became emotionally affected and were diagnosed with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Military children exhibited increased levels of fear and anxiety, decreased academic performance, and problem behaviors at home and at school during the most recent parental deployment.
Today we have been fighting the War on Terror for more than 10 years and the Department of Defense has not prioritized the study and analysis of the children of single parents in the Military. They have specific needs that need to be addressed and have not yet been set as a priority. It is estimated that there are approximately 156,000 Soldiers who are single parents. There is still no federal law that protects Servicemembers from being sued for custody of children while they are in a combat zone. A federal law would standardize every state to have the same rules in regards to this matter. The “Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act” was drafted by a group of lawyers and judges, but it is not a sustainable legal document in court. It’s just a legal recommendation. So far, the only thing helping out is the commitment of some senators who have created individual legislation that have become laws in different states. There are still states that do not have any laws at all. Not all states have a similar law, which has made the job of the Servicemembers who are single mothers uncertain. Given that the law that applies to where you live depends on the person who will care for their child the next time they will be deployed to a combat zone.
For those Servicemembers who lost their children in the past, the battle to get their children back is in their own hands. The Department of Defense is doing little or nothing to help them out. They are not involved in civil legal cases regarding this matter. They do not provide legal assistance regarding child custody cases, even in cases when the military system did not allow soldiers to participate in the court hearings. They do not keep a record of how many Servicemembers are suffering from this situation. To be an agency that does not discriminate against single parents and have all intentions to support their troops; these are the small things that people are asking for. They have been asking for it for too many years and no action is being done about it.
When are single mothers going to be important enough for the Department of Defense to take action on these issues? A child is the most important thing a human being has. We should not criminalize the work that the Servicemember does, especially the work of a single mother who works as a soldier with dignity. Only 1% of the American population accepts the challenge of defending their nation. This work is difficult enough, to do it while you are the mother and father of a child makes you a special person. It is sad to see how the government itself does not give them the respect and support they deserve, these heroines of our day.