Every so often, an article or information comes at you from a unique place. I don’t subscribe to Vogue magazine. There is nothing in its 400 plus pages of advertising that I find even remotely interesting. It doesn’t draw my attention in the check out counter at the grocery store. True, there are often some good articles buried within the bulimic looking mannequins that are supposed to be icons of fashion but I really couldn’t be bothered to hunt for them every month amid mass advertisements for mascara or Prada. Not that I don’t like those things. I do. I just don’t read about them on a regular basis. I suppose that Vogue is for women what Playboy is for men. We really are reading it for the articles. No really.
So when my agent emailed me and told me about an article on soldier mothers, of course I went out and bought it. This thing weighs a ton and true to the few copies I’ve read over the years, mostly on overseas flights, there were a ton of advertisements. But the article that caught my attention was Bye Bye, Baby by Elizabeth Rubin and I’ve got a few comments on it (really did you expect anything less?).
First, the author repeats the media truism that Alexis Hutchinson is a poor, exploited victim of an Army that simply doesn’t care about family life. If you remember, Hutchinson was arrested and charged with missing movement, dereliction of duty, absent without leave and insubordinate conduct. Note that none of these charges was her failure to have a family care plan. She was ultimately separated from the military in lieu of court martial and, according to the Press Release issued by Fort Stewart, admitted to lying about her family care plan. So was she really a victim of the evil Army attacking a poor single mom or was she trying to avoid doing her duty? Only she knows but the Army’s investigation reveals that the case is not as the media presented it to be.
The reason I take issue with the media portrayal of Hutchinson’s case is that it is complete and utterly misleading the public on the realities of mothers in the military. When single mothers enlist, they must voluntarily give up custody of their children to someone else. When a female soldier becomes pregnant, she must have a valid family care plan 90 days prior to the scheduled birth of her child and KNOWS that she is required to fulfill her obligations as a soldier. Every single mother on active duty knows that it is not a question of if she will have to leave her children, but when and still we serve. In fact, there has been no mass exodus of women leaving the military due to pregnancy since the wars began. According to the Defense Manpower Center statistics, since 2001, the numbers for pregnancy separations have remained relatively steady on average around 1500.
There are significantly more men separated for a variety of other reasons every year. And yes, that include percentages as well. The Army doesn’t just randomly court martial people for no reason and not having a family care plan is not a court martialable offense. Dereliction of duty, however, is.
The second issue that I have with Rubin’s article is that she incorrectly states that the Army only gives 4 months of nondeployable time after the birth of a child when in fact, the Army policy is in fact 6 months. Is this still woefully inadequate for the mother of a newborn? Absolutely. But if you’re going to write an article about how terrible the Army is to new mothers, its important to at least practice some Google-fu before hand and make sure the facts are accurate.
The third thing that actually has me the most irate about the Vogue article is the statement, highlighted in a call out box that says “Not even the Soviets, the Israelis, or the Iraqi Baathist have sent mothers of infants and toddlers to the front lines like we do.”
First off, comparing the Israeli army to the Soviets and the Baathists is offensive in too many ways to count. The Israeli army is often held up as a paragon of coed combat when in fact, women are not in the infantry there any more than they are in the infantry in our own army. But stating that our Army is somehow “exploiting the blanket mandatory deployment because we need bodies to feed the global military machine” clearly shows the authors bias against our military and our current wars. Comparing our army to the Soviets and the Baathist is a cheap tactic that not only undermines every single value the Army holds up as a virtue, it also devalues the soldiers that make up this great Army and is willing to guard the gates so that you can go about your business buying shoes or purses and ignoring the capitalist reality that buying said purse has on the world around you.
There are, however, facts in Rubin’s article that I agree with. We don’t know the long term impact on the children of their mothers being gone and the evidence that is starting to be gathered suggests that some children will have long term challenges while others will be fine. And I can also relate to the experiences of one of the mothers in her article, when she says she’s short on patience and has difficulty reintegrating. I do believe that mothers have a harder time coming home than fathers do because our role in our families is different. Not better, not worse. Different. Rubin’s article also does a brilliant job of depicting how mothers deal with combat situations and how they relate those experiences in war to when they come home.
There are entire academic papers, both within the military and without, that argue the role of women and mothers in the military. Arguing that the 6 month non deployable status is too little ignores the operational needs of the war fighting units that have been on back to back to back deployments since 2001. Women in the military are expected to do their jobs, just like our male counter parts. THAT is equality.
Arguing that new moms should get a longer nondeployable period is great for mothers and for retaining some of these young women in the force. We NEED good soldiers on Rear Detachment so leaving some of these leaders back to care for their children and ensure that the soldiers left in the rear have good leadership is one argument for giving new mothers longer non deployable time. But we have the luxury of having this debate now as the war winds down. We did not have this luxury two, three or four years ago at the height of Iraq and as Afghanistan heats back up, we must never forget that our soldiers are STILL at war and THAT must be our focus.
At the end of it all, Rubin uses these women’s stories to paint a failed or failing picture of the conflict in Afghanistan. She starts the article talking about military moms but ends it talking about American resolve. I don’t believe she was being malicious in her article, but I do believe she used the soldiers’ stories to serve her own agenda, just as any reporter or writer does.
I simply abhor the fact that she once more held Hutchinson up as the poster child for military moms when there are thousands and thousands of us who do our duty and still try to be good moms. I abhor the fact that she compares our army to the Soviets and the Baathists, as if somehow implying that our army is forcing mothers to choose this life and is sending them to the front lines with a gun to the back of their head.
Mothers on active duty have a choice to serve or not. No one forces them to raise their right hand and when the Army pays for the birth of your child, gives that child healthcare and pays you to help put a roof over that child’s head, all the Army asks is for you to do your part. It is all we all do. The Army is not a welfare state. We have rules that clearly lay out what we as mothers must do to serve.
So please, stop acting like we’re exploited victims of the evil male Army. Accept that we are here because we choose to be here, with all that entails for our families. We are responsible for our choices, just as our male counterparts are. THAT is what feminism is about.
The power to choose our paths through this world, just as any man can choose his path.