- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

More women than ever before have been deployed to overseas assignments during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terrorism.

Women make up about 16 percent of the 3.5 million people serving in the U.S. armed forces; they account for 38 percent of active duty personnel and are one out of every seven soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While having a deployed parent has always caused stress on the home front, researchers are just beginning to see the effects of so many women leaving the family for an extended time, says Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, professor of family studies and the director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University.

“We’re at a place similar to where we were years ago when we worried about women in the work force,” says Ms. Wadsworth. “It is hard research to do. Is it somehow worse for [deployed] mothers than it is for fathers? The answer is probably in some families, yes, because mothers are the primary parents when it comes to child care and other family scheduling. I think the degree for which it is difficult hinges on that and the character of the individuals in each family.”

George Mason University associate professor Mona Ternus, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves, recently looked into the effects of deployment on women and their adolescent children. The study, “Military Women’s Perceptions of the Effect of Deployment on their Role as Mothers and on Adolescents’ Health,” interviewed 77 female service members who recently completed a deployment and were the mothers of children ages 10 to 18. She found that not only did the deployment have emotional impact, it also had health effects.

“War-induced separation impacts family life with unique stressors related to the dangerous aspects of deployment,” says Ms. Ternus, who is also director of academic outreach and distance education in George Mason’s College of Health and Human Services. “These military women believe in the mission. And what they believe in terms of their commitment and their work is very high. This is very much a personal part of their lives and a personal part of their own self-development that becomes a part of them.”

Ms. Ternus found that the female soldiers reported physical stress such as cough, headaches, joint pain, back pain, muscle aches, numbness/tingling, skin rashes, diarrhea, chest pain and breathing difficulty, as well as a correlation between the physical symptoms and the number of days deployed.

She also found that a longer deployment leads to increased risk behaviors among adolescent children such as non-accidental physical injury, physical fights, incidents involving weapons, cigarette smoking/ chewing tobacco, alcohol, illegal drug use, self mutilation, drop in school grades and attempted suicide.

Ms. Ternus points out that 75 percent of the families reported participating in risky behavior prior to deployment and between one and 10 risk behaviors during deployment.

“There are more than 3 million immediate family members of active-duty and reserve personnel, of whom approximately 400,000 are adolescents,” says Ms. Ternus. “Adolescence is a turbulent period with an increased number of risk behaviors. It follows that separation from the military mother during these potentially dangerous deployments has an impact on the adolescent.”

Karen Steiner, an Air Force Reserves major who recently completed a four-month deployment in Iraq, says she and her husband — both formerly served on active duty — thought they were prepared for her deployment. However, her daughter, 15, definitely acted up while her mother was away.

“She was like the poster child for adolescent behavior,” says Mrs. Steiner, who lives in Ohio. “She snuck out of the house and my husband was called by the police to pick her up. She also pierced the septum of her nose. My husband didn’t even notice.”

Mrs. Steiner says it is hard to know what is normal adolescent rebellion and what was brought on by the deployment, “but I don’t think this would have happened if I was home,” she said.

She also said returning home is also a hard part of being deployed.

“I wasn’t part of the routine,” she said. “It was almost like I was an outsider.”

Ms. Ternus said that 70 percent of her study subjects said that the deployment impacted their relationship with their teen. However, 15 percent said their relationship actually improved.

“For some families, [children] appreciated their mothers more when they were gone,” said Ms. Ternus. “Sometimes you can get to deeper issues by e-mail than you can face to face.”

Ms. Ternus, whose daughter is now in her 20s, was deployed three times. She says she finds military support “better than most workplaces” but still not perfect.

The advent of technology has eased some of the disconnect as deployed women are in touch via Skype and e-mail, for instance. They can not only communicate with families, but can log on to school Web sites to see report cards and chat with teachers.

Still, the gap is not completely bridged. Even though there are support services available through various military and private organizations, many families are slow to take advantage of them, says Ms. Ternus.

“A lot of teens shy away from things like counseling,” she said. “There is so much coming at them. They are at a time in their life where they are trying to become their own person.”

Ms. Ternus said it might be more helpful for families to strategize ahead of time. One soldier’s advice to her was to find a really good female role model to whom the children can turn to for advice. Another said talk about any fears the children are having — especially if you are in a war zone — and address them ahead of time. It is also helpful to discuss why mom is away, as well as her own mixed feelings.

“I know a lot of people who love to deploy,” says Ms. Ternus. “They feel like they are really contributing and doing the mission for which they have trained. It makes them feel very proud of what they are doing, and they want their families to be proud, too.”

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