Around him people pose for pictures and parents corral rowdy
kids, but Staff Sgt. Brian Duffy is quiet, absorbed, completely
focused. This parenting moment is precious, he knows, and not to be
wasted. As he hands his first child to his wife, he plants a kiss
on the crop of dark hair atop the 6-week-old's head. It will be 13
months before he holds his son again.
Duffy, who wears combat fatigues under the spit-up towel draped
over his shoulder, is headed to war.
His Chicago-based Army Reserve unit deployed on Jan. 4 for a
13-month tour in Afghanistan. Its 16 members have 28 kids between
them and all were in attendance at the send-off ceremony at Fort
Sheridan, from 6-week-old Brian to 22-year-old Rob Aitchison, whose
mother, Pam, is a major.
Almost 2 million children nationwide have a parent in the
military, and an estimated 300,000 have a parent currently serving
in Iraq or Afghanistan. With no end in sight to either conflict,
and President Obama's promise to send an additional 30,000 troops
to Afghanistan by next summer, that number is going to rise before
it falls. These are the hidden costs of the country's two wars:
missed recitals, a report card slipping from Bs to Cs, a once-happy
marriage marred by squabbles over bills and groceries.
As the way America fights its wars changes, so, too, does life
on the home front. Multiple deployments, a heavy reliance on
reserve and National Guard units, and the uncertainty over when and
how these conflicts will end have put more stress than ever on
military personnel and the families they leave behind.
Bottom line: It's taking more fuel than ever to keep the home
The unit's orders came last winter in an e-mail from the
commander. Lt. Ray Abordo printed out the sheet and handed it to
his wife, Maria. She started to cry.
"All of a sudden, it was like there was this big clock counting
down, and every day it started going faster and faster," says the
father of three, a trauma nurse in the unit.
Video games with his son, Alex, and trips to his daughter
Caitland's gymnastics meets took on extra significance. But as
training trips ate up his weekends and everyday tasks became
reminders of the coming deployment, Ray started to detach, his wife
says, occasionally becoming distant and snappy. For the first time
in their 13-year marriage, the couple felt their relationship start
"He was pulling away, and I'm holding on as tight as I can, and
before you know it, you're fighting about the stupidest things,"
Maria says. "(The deployment) just changed the entire feel in the
And now that Ray is gone, Maria, who is seven months pregnant
with the couple's fourth child, must face the fallout alone.
In families with one deployed parent, it's simple math. One
driver has to shuttle the kids from school to karate to piano
lessons. One income has to make do where before there were two. And
one person is left with the emotional burden of keeping the family
"As parents, you see yourself as a team," Maria says. "Then all
of a sudden, it's just me ... That's a heavy load."
It's a load she's determined not to let affect her children --
"they should be allowed to just be kids," she says -- but that's
easier said than done. Studies, including one released in December by the RAND
Corporation and the National Military Family Association, have
repeatedly found that parental deployments have lasting effects on
their children's emotional health, sense of responsibility and
success in school.
"Now that he's gone, I have to basically be my dad," says Alex,
9. "My mom has no one to hang out with."
For the next 369 days, the Abordos will find their way as a
one-parent household, navigating teacher conferences and gymnastics
meets and 4-year-old Bella's first day of kindergarten. But one
date in particular -- March 14, Maria's due date -- stands out. For
the couple's three children, Ray was Maria's private nurse, holding
her hand through each delivery. "I still can't believe he won't be
there," she says.
As America's military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan
escalates, experiences of military families like the Abordos are
"It's easy to see someone in uniform and recognize their
sacrifice," says Michelle Joyner, communications director of the
National Military Family Association, a non-profit that helps
support spouses and children of military service personnel. "But
families serve, too. It's a different kind of sacrifice, but no
less heart breaking."
Wars are always life-altering events for those who fight them,
and never easy for those left behind. But structural changes to the
military since the Vietnam era have made today's deployments far
more disruptive, experts say, with effects that ripple farther and
more deeply back home. The "professionalization" of the armed
forces -- in which young, usually unmarried draftees have been
replaced by an all-volunteer corps that tends to be older and make
a longer-term commitment to military life -- has reshaped the
concept of family life in the military.
"In World War II or Korea or Vietnam, 'military families' were
parents whose son was fighting," says Michael Allen, a military
historian at Northwestern University. "That entire idea has been
turned on its head."
Soldiers in the draft era were younger, usually between 18 and
22, and those with wives and children often got deferments or
exemptions. Now, Allen says, servicemen and women are, on average,
older and more likely to have families, careers and community
responsibilities that are derailed by a deployment. More than half
of the more than 250,000 military service members deployed are
married and 45 percent have kids, according to defense department
Of those with kids, nearly two-thirds have been deployed more
"War is never easy, but in some sense, 18-year-olds don't come
with as much 'baggage,'" Allen says. "In that way, these wars are
changing family dynamics in ways we've never seen before."
This is especially true of National Guard and reserve members,
which have been deployed heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Used
sparingly before 2001, these units now make up about 30 percent of
"These are your doctors, your football coaches, your teachers,
your mechanics, people who are far more integrated into their
communities," Joyner says. With increasing use of reservists, she
says, "every community becomes a military community."
Staying connected at home...
Reservists are often more geographically spread out, too. When
they deploy, their families are left without the built-in support
system available for active-duty family members who live on a
military base. The members of the Chicago unit deployed on Jan. 4
from Fort Sheridan are strewn across the northern and western
The task of bridging that distance falls to Dena Provenzano,
whose husband is Maj. Marc Provenzano, the unit commander. In her
official role as the unit's family readiness coordinator-and her
unofficial role as the boss' wife-she stays in touch with spouses,
plans family outings and playdates and sends out a newsletter. With
four kids of her own and her husband on his second tour in
Afghanistan, Provenzano has the unenviable role of being in charge
"Having this group to kind of nurture helps me focus on
something more than my own sadness," Provenzano says. "It's hard on
everybody, but knowing you're not alone goes a long way."
During Marc's first deployment to Afghanistan, a nine-month
stretch back in 2002, Dena had a 5-year-old and 15-month-old twins.
She remembers the wife of another soldier came down from Milwaukee
one weekend to stay with her, just to give her time to sleep, get a
haircut, watch TV. Now she says she'll do the same for the young
mothers in the group.
"You have to look out for each other," she says. "If you can
make even one minute of all this easier on someone, that's worth
The Provenzano kids got a special present in their stockings
this Christmas-a necklace with their father's dog tags and a small
pendant of St. Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers.
Provenzano is also making each child a pillowcase with their dad's
picture. And for her youngest child, 4-year-old Gianna, she points
out Afghanistan on a map. "I tell her, 'That's where Daddy's
going,'" she says. "You do anything to feel connected to them, to
what's going on over there."
And as hard as today's deployments are on families, in some
ways, staying connected has never been easier. Most overseas bases
have Internet access, and Skype, the Web-based video phone service,
is popular among military families. (In March, Abordo is hoping to
set up a Skype connection in the delivery room to watch his child-a
boy, to be named Tristan Nicholas-being born.) Information from
official sources can be slow to make the rounds, but informal
e-mail chains and telephone trees help fill in the gaps.
"I thought I was going crazy, but just knowing that other people
are feeling the same things you are really helps," Maria Abordo
says. "Until he comes home, I'll be counting on the other families
to keep me sane."
In the meantime, Maria says she takes some comfort in knowing
her husband is helping other men and women return safely to their
families. As what's known as a forward surgical team, the unit's
mission is to deliver quick medical care in the field and bridge
the long transport times to Army hospitals.
"The guys I'll treat over there, they have families, too," Ray
Abordo says. "I tell the kids, if I do my job, that means someone
else's dad gets to come home."
See more of Liz's stories here.
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