When parents go to war, families pay a price

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 fires burning.

A heavy load

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 to shake.

“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 house.”

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 bond strong.

“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 increasingly common.

“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.”

A changing military

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 data.

Of those with kids, nearly two-thirds have been deployed more than once.

“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 overseas deployments.

“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 suburbs.

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 of morale.

“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 it.”

…and abroad

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.”

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