My husband is currently serving his second tour in Iraq with the Washington State Army National Guard, two years before the 81st Brigade was supposed to be eligible to be called up again, according to a long-standing Pentagon policy. We struggled with post-combat reintegration and were separated for nearly a year. I was one of the 40-plus percent of military wives whose mental health suffered during deployment; he was one of the 100 percent of soldiers awarded the Combat Infantry Badge who came back from war a different person. We reconciled shortly before he got the Roaring Bull alert informing him that he would be going back to Iraq. As one of the few military spouses who has been speaking out against the war in Iraq for years - a "dumb war," according to President Obama - there was no small amount of irony that the alert was issued on March 19, 2008, the fifth anniversary of the initial invasion.
The 81st spent several months training at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, away from home and family, prior to shipping out. My husband didn't get any pre-deployment leave. I had recently moved to accept a new position in a different state in order to implement programs to help military families and veterans, and I didn't have leave time or travel funds available. We said our good-byes in the middle of August, 2008. We are hoping that he comes home in August of 2009. When my husband returns from Iraq, we will have spent at least one year apart. There's no two weeks R & R this time. When he (prayer to the Universe) makes it back, he will have 30 days paid leave. I will not - paid or unpaid.
If we are a nation that supports the troops, and, by extension, military families, not to mention a country committed to family values, then a Federal Military Family Leave Act is long overdue.
If military families have a friend in the First Lady - and as a Blue Star wife, I desperately need to believe that we do - then passing national legislation modeled after the Washington State Military Family Leave law (RCW 49.77), and the pending House Bill 2744 in Oregon, which would provide 14 days of unpaid leave per deployment for military spouses, should be at the very top of her to-do list. Here's why:
For the first years of the Vietnam War, married men were exempt from the draft, and for the duration of the war, married men with children were given deferments so that they wouldn't be deployed as it would constitute too much of a hardship on the families. (Exhibit A: Dick Cheney) During Vietnam, the majority of troops served one tour, and comparatively few citizen soldiers served in combat. In fact, a number of eligible males got influential friends and family members to grease the wheels of their entry into the National Guard specifically in order to avoid combat deployments (Exhibit B: President George W. Bush)
But that was then, and this is now, and oh, what a difference the draft makes! Today, the bulk of the boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan are married. They have served, or are serving, multiple tours; and most of them have children. Around 40 percent are citizen soldiers - National Guard, Reserve, Individual Ready Reserve, and Augmented Reserve - who are even more likely to be married with kids than active duty forces.
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The very people that were exempt from the draft during Vietnam comprise the bulk of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are serving longer and more frequent tours than ever asked of the military in this nation's history. And so are their families.
"We choose to be soldiers, but our families get drafted," said Col. Courtney Carr, 76th Infantry Brigade Commander. "It can be stressful on our loved ones. The strength at home is crucial and it allows us to focus on the mission."
When the draft was in effect, the hardship on military families was deemed so horrendous that married parents were exempt from conscription. Keep in mind that far fewer women worked outside the home then than do today, when almost 70 percent of military wives are employed. Because the majority of those military wives are also parents, when a loved one is about to be deployed, they will save whatever time off, sick leave, and vacations they may have accrued - generally less than two weeks - in case there's a child care or health emergency while their soldier is gone.
So, really, that's what we're talking about here: two weeks. For the small minority of American businesses that would be affected, it's a small hardship. And it could be incentivized, as had been done with numerous bills supporting veteran reintegration and re-employment. A Federal Military Family Leave Act would also represent the first time that the burden of the war on terror has extended to the civilian and business sector, which has been clamoring for a call to share the sacrifice. (The previous President's call to ‘return to business as usual,' and "go shopping," is surely a tragedy of patriotism on a national scale.)
But for the majority of military spouses that would be affected, two weeks would be a great gift. And, for some of us, the reality is that our soldiers will come home in a box. In the very worst case scenario - and I weep as I write this - we would spend the rest of our lives wishing for those last two weeks of time with our beloved. Two weeks. Surely America - and America's employers - can afford that.