A Single Mother Prepares for War

A reminder of the challenges low-income women face when they're deployed

Becoming soldiers again, that was the task. This time they were given almost an entire year to prepare. Desma had been telling her children for months that there might be a deployment coming, but when she said it’s definite and it’s Iraq and it’s happening this year they were shocked. “You’re just going to leave again?” Josh asked in disbelief. “It’s not like I have a choice,” Desma told him. “You’ll understand when you’re older.” That fall, Alexis was going to start second grade, and Paige was going to start fourth grade, while Josh would begin his freshman year of high school. All of them were old enough to anticipate what a year’s absence would be like, and they had three-quarters of a year to fret. The girls grew clingy; Josh kept his distance. He said, “I want to finish high school where I start high school. I’m not going to keep moving around.” Desma said all right, he could stay with his surrogate father Keith in Gentryville during all four years of high school, although it kind of broke her heart. Then she spoke to her cousin Lesley about minding the two girls again. Lesley said she would do it if it was what Desma really needed, but she had a lot going on. Desma understood: it was too hard. So she made other arrangements. Her daughters would stay with their paternal grandparents, who lived close to the girls’ father, down in Spurgeon, Indiana.

It was the same town in which Desma had been raised. The girls’ grandparents lived in a house that Desma remembered being occupied by some boys who used to pick on her when they rode the school bus. Spurgeon was about an hour’s drive from Rockport, where Desma lived, and she had maintained a close connection to her in‑laws even after her divorce from their son, Dennis Brooks. Like everybody in southern Indiana, it sometimes seemed, they had fallen on hard times; her father-in-law, Ray Brooks, had worked for a company that had closed, and had started over with an entry-level job at a furniture factory in Jasper. The girls had a particularly warm and affectionate relationship with their grandmother, Paula Brooks, whom they called Ma‑maw. Desma thought it would be a good arrangement. “She loved the girls,” Desma would recall. “They were her pride and joy, kept her going every day. She never faulted me for our divorce, she loved me very much. And was thankful for the opportunity to spend as much time as she got with the girls.”

Desma had to report to Camp Atterbury for two weeks of training each month in May, June, July, and September 2007. She tried to hang on to her full-time job at the Kentucky United Methodist Homes for Children and Youth, but eventually asked for a leave of absence. Her boss said he would keep the job open until she got back, and her coworkers made her a quilt.

After each training session, Desma picked the children up and they all returned to Rockport. With the mandatory trainings taking her away so much, however, she found it hard to care for her children in a consistent fashion, and she did not want to disrupt the children’s schooling by having them switch institutions in the middle of the year. Beginning in August 2007, she sent the children to live with the relatives she had chosen to parent them while she was gone, even though she would not go on active duty status for another four months. “You know, let’s not uproot them in the middle of the school year,” she said later. “Let’s do it at the beginning and start off fresh.” She did not make too much of the transition. “I’ll see you on Friday,” she told the girls casually before turning them over to their grandmother. Same with Josh. “See you at the weekend.” Josh established himself at his father’s house quickly. He had lived there before, and already had friends in the area. But the girls entered a household that was about to be thrown into turmoil. Their grandmother had been experiencing health problems, and within weeks, Paula got a routine scan and unexpectedly learned she had cancer. The girls gleaned that their grandmother was ill after the house filled with worry and they were brought on rushed visits to doctors. In September, while Desma was at Camp Atterbury again, her mother-in-law was briefly hospitalized. Not until the following month, however, shortly before Desma began another two-week training session, did Paula share word of her illness with Desma. She barely had a chance to assimilate the news. The 113th Support Battalion was not being deployed as a coherent entity— instead, individuals from the battalion were being distributed across the rest of the 76th Infantry Brigade, wherever there were empty slots that needed filling—and she had just been told to report for a two-week training session with the 293rd, a previously all-male infantry regiment. She would serve in Iraq alongside a group of men she had never known.The coming deployment pretty much ended Desma’s relationship with Jimmy. He said he had endured one yearlong absence already and would not do it again. If she went to Iraq, she would not find him waiting for her when she got home. Jimmy said she had chosen the military over him. She said that was fine with her, he should not wait. Her lease did not run out until July 2008; she wrote enough checks to cover the rent until then, and gave them to Jimmy to mail as the months went by. She told Jimmy he could stay in the house while she was gone. All she asked was that he look after her dog, Goldie.

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Helen Thorpe is a journalist based in Denver. She has written for The New York Times MagazineNew York magazine, The New YorkerSlate, and Harper's Bazaar, and is the author of Just Like Us.

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