Air Force Lt. Merideth Wright cried all day when she learned military deployment would take her away from her daughter.
Her husband, Capt. Jeff Wright, who before Sept. 11 had planned to switch from flying Air Force planes to piloting American Airlines jets, may soon be deployed too.
"Our life has changed a lot," says Captain Wright of Gulfport, Miss. In just two weeks, eight-month-old Isabella has been weaned, his wife has shipped out to Florida, then New Mexico (and, soon, to an overseas post), and American Airlines, in the throes of sudden retrenchment, has withdrawn its job offer.
All of that puts Isabella among the children at risk of losing both parents to America's war on terrorism. For military families whose children could be orphaned, this new conflict is certainly cause for soul-searching. But it's also a matter of intense interest to the US armed services, where dual-military couples and single parents make up a small but rising share of active-duty troops: Between 1990 and 2000, they increased by almost 3 percent to 120,000.
The issue arose for the first time during the 1991 Gulf War. While women were limited to noncombat roles, female service members died piloting transport helicopters. Some were killed while sleeping in their barracks in Saudi Arabia, when an Iraqi Scud missile hit. No child, however, lost both parents to combat duty during that war.
Since the Kosovo air war in 1999, when female pilots flew bombing missions for the first time, the public has grown more accustomed to seeing women in combat. In addition to such missions, now more than 10,000 female sailors serve aboard warships. When a terrorist attack blew a hole in the USS Cole last fall, two women were among the sailors killed.
Moreover, as the US enters a war without front lines, or even borders, the threat to military personnel strikes noncombat roles more than ever. "Everybody is at risk," says Darlene Iskra, who in 1990 became the first woman to command a Navy ship, while her husband also served in the military. "Having orphans is not just a remote possibility."
In this new world of moms in combat, whether single or married, parents must file a family-care plan, detailing who is to take care of children if both are deployed.
Lieutenant Wright, for instance, says her mother-in-law flew to Mississippi from California to help watch Isabella.
If only one military spouse is deployed, the one left behind must balance a desire to serve with greater responsibilities at home. Maj. Connie Reeves, an Army intelligence officer based in Germany, watched her husband's orders to deploy to Saudi Arabia come over a confidential military fax machine in 1991. Afterward, she put up a Christmas tree a month early to make sure they shared the holidays with their two young children.
During her husband's deployment, Major Reeves worked 12-hour days briefing generals. At night, she bought travel cages for the cats in case she too went abroad, while worrying about sending her children back to relatives in the US.
"It was pretty wrenching," says Reeves, who retired from the Army in 1994 after 18 years of duty. "Being in the military and being dual military is very difficult."
In peacetime, as well, dual-military couples must cope with lengthy deployments apart. Navy regulations don't allow married couples to serve under the same command, more out of concern that one spouse could end up overseeing the other than for fear of both reaching combat.
Neither the Army nor the Air Force has similar rules barring husbands and wives from the same unit. No service will deploy a mother of a child less than four months old.
The Pentagon has resisted attempts by Congress to prevent active-duty spouses from deploying to the same place, or to prohibit the deployment of mothers of young children. But military social services try to help ease separations.
At Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where huge B-52 bombers took off last month for destinations unknown, children can teleconference with parents in different locations. Deployed troops also receive stationery to write their children.
Yet, despite the military's best efforts, it's not easy for children left behind and their new caregivers, says Kate Summers, who counsels military families for the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit service group based in Newton, Conn. These children must adjust simultaneously to new surroundings and their parents' absence.
Last month, enlisted Navy reservists Janie and Trevor Long received activation orders within a half hour of each other. They say their three kids haven't taken the news well.
Since their orders, the Longs have started working opposite 12-hour shifts at naval bases near their Newport News, Va., home. Mr. Long's sister, who is helping with their kids, agreed to moved in if Long or his wife ships out. If both must deploy, the kids will move to Florida with Mrs. Long's mother, who is already hunting for day care.
Meanwhile, Wright, now home alone with Isabella, could also be called for duty away from home. If he is, Wright says he'd be more than willing to go: "It's going to be hard on Isabella, but when the nation calls, the nation calls."