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Spc. Spring Sullivent camel

Courtesy of Spc. Spring Sullivent

Spc. Spring Sullivent (center, feeding camel) spent more than a year away from her 5-year-old son, Gideon, while serving in Kuwait with the Illinois National Guard.

Mothers in the military face adjustments during deployments, homecomings

by Esther Bergdahl
May 09, 2013

Spc. Spring Sullivent hangar

Courtesy of Spc. Spring Sullivent

Other soldiers who were parents often helped Spc. Sullivent (center) through the bad times when she missed her son.

For mothers serving in the military, deployments can shape their relationships with their children and their families long after they’ve come home.

Spc. Spring Sullivent, 33, of Elk Grove Village, is one of more than 150,000 single parents serving in the U.S. military, according to a 2011 Department of Defense report. In September 2010 she brought her son, Gideon, to Pennsylvania to live with her sister while she deployed to Kuwait with the Illinois National Guard.

“I left two weeks before his 5th birthday and got back two weeks after his 7th birthday,” Sullivent said.

During the year that she was away, Sullivent spoke with Gideon on Skype twice a month, keenly aware of the milestones in his life that she was missing, and of how little she could do to help him adjust to her absence.

“That would be when I would go and sit down with one of the other mothers [at the base],” she said. “I would feel horribly guilty. And she'd be there and be like, ‘It's OK. You're doing what you've got to do. Just focus on the job.’”

Sullivent said that while Kuwait is the safest available option for serving in a war zone, “[Gideon’s] mind doesn’t get that. His mind just says I’m at war.”

Children of deployed service members can experience different kinds of anxieties depending on their level of cognitive development. Candice Alfano, associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston, is leading a study at the university’s Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids to gather data about how children are affected by a parent’s deployment.

“Prior to the age of 7, we don't know if children can truly understand the risks associated with a parent who's deployed to a combat zone,” Alfano said.

Families that have coped with long separations face new challenges when deployed service members return home. Chaplain Jenny Nielsen is the program manager for the Illinois National Guard’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which works with service members and their families to support their needs before, during and after deployment.

“There's 30 days of honeymoon, and after that, things might start coming out,” Nielsen said. She emphasized that her program organizes Family Readiness Groups in which members can meet to share stories and tips about life after service. Her staff also checks in with families and service members every 30 days to see whether their needs have changed.

“It takes courage to ask for that support, to say ‘Hey, I need some help,’ and we want to guide them to places where they can get that support,” she said.

For her part, Sullivent chose to make a controlled, gradual transition away from “the military mentality” back to being a single mom. She said that she cried when she was able to hug Gideon again, but she didn’t take care of him full time during the first year of her return. She commuted between Pennsylvania, where Gideon still lived, and Illinois, and relied heavily on her family for help.

“Your life is so organized and so scheduled and so straitlaced [in the military], there's no room for any questioning, there's no room for any thoughts or deviations,” she said. “To come home and to try to take care of a 7-year-old with that mentality, it just doesn't work.”

Despite the hardship of separation, Sullivent said she found and continued to find comfort in how her son feels about her decision to serve in the military.

“It's the first thing he says, when my son meets you: ‘My mommy’s a soldier. She's been to war. She's a hero.’ I don't think anything else could ever replace hearing him say that and hearing the pride in his voice when he says that.”

After so much upheaval, Sullivent and Gideon have low-key plans for Mother’s Day.

“We'll go out to breakfast, enjoy breakfast somewhere. Probably IHOP, it's our favorite breakfast place,” she said. “And then I'll let him go play and I'll probably just curl up with a good book. I’m looking forward to it.”