'Mom? Telephone for you. It's the Army.'
Of reservists called up so far, nearly 20 percent are women - prompting new military measures to help families cope.
WASHINGTON — Staff Sgt. Martha Sass, her five children, and her husband cried for two straight days one week after the 9/11 attacks - when she got orders to ship out.
Lt. Cmdr. (s) Tara McFeely's new clients were crestfallen in September when she told them she had to leave for a year, possibly two, after receiving mobilization orders just two months into her job as an international-security consultant.
As the US ratchets up deployment of troops, a growing number of women reservists are being called to active duty - and being asked to create family-contingency plans and put other careers on hold.
Women's numbers in both the active military and reserves have grown in the past 30 years, as policy changes have opened more roles to them. And many women have chosen the reserves - drilling one weekend per month - because it's more amenable to families and careers.
Now, though, they are torn between two callings: They've volunteered and are committed to serving their country. At the same time, they have full, demanding lives.
"My oldest daughter was pregnant when I was called up, and stressed out," says Sergeant Sass. "She said, 'Oh no, you're not going to be here for me.' " Though Sass was riddled with guilt, her daughter was fine - as were her husband and four other kids.
Because the increase in women reservists - and their mobilization - is a fairly new phenomenon, it's difficult to gauge the effects of being called to active duty on their families' lives or on their own. But interviews with several women who have been recently mobilized show ways in which they are coping with family and career changes.
"There are more women in the reserves than ever before, and more women in the reserves than in the active services," says David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "Deployment has a particular impact on reservists ... [in] disrupting their normal civilian lives."
And, Professor Segal says, "This is going to be a major change, considering most policymakers are from the Vietnam generation. And during the Vietnam War, we did not make extensive use of the reserves. Joining the reserves then was an honorable way of avoiding wartime service. Now we have designed the force in such a way that we can't go to war without the reserves."
Husbands are taking on greater domestic roles - helping with homework and housework, coordinating soccer carpools, paying bills. Employers are finding ways to fill gaps during absences. And the military is developing support programs to ease the women and their families through deployment.
Sass's family learned to live without her for nearly a year. She received her mobilization call in September 2001. By early October, she was at Incirlik Air Base in eastern Turkey, helping coordinate medical evacuation flights for soldiers who'd been wounded in the war in Afghanistan, as well as for prisoners who were detained in Afghanistan and later sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Women reservists are needed for such jobs - roles that aren't critical in peacetime, but are crucial in war.
The Pentagon increased its deployments to the Persian Gulf by 62,000 last weekend, bringing the total to about 150,000. At the same time, 57,000 reservists have been activated. Of those, nearly 20 percent are women. And those numbers have more than doubled since 1980.
In Sass's unit, 5 of 18 members, including the commander, were women. She says the unit supported one another through family separations - especially at holidays. When one colleague received a digital movie camera for Christmas, he helped Sass assemble a birthday video for her 13-year-old. That was a huge hit, as were the daily e-mails between her, the other children, and her husband, Benjamin, who'd never used e-mail before. "I think I knew more about them and their daily routines while I was away than when I was at home," she says.
One of the biggest benefits, she recalls, was how close the rest of the family grew in her absence. They spent more time together - especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas - cheering one another up and helping with chores.
She's pleased to report that her family is maintaining those habits, even now that she's back at her civilian job as a training coordinator at the Robert Bosch Corp., in Charleston, S.C.
Commander McFeely says her employer - Booz, Allen, Hamilton - will hold her job for her, too, though she only began last July. Currently, she works at the Office of Naval Intelligence in Suitland, Md., examining the world from a "maritime perspective ..., poising for a war against Iraq and watching North Korea."
She says she was only slightly disappointed to get the call from the military in September. "I did this with my eyes wide open," she says, "And I will come back only more qualified to my job."
McFeely's husband has his own business, which has given the couple flexibility. And he understands the military's pull: The two met in the Navy, and he, too, is a member of the Navy reserves.
McFeely says the military is extremely supportive, with advice on arranging salaries - her employer makes up the difference between her salary and what the military pays - as well as writing wills and setting up family benefits.
Chief Master Sgt. Marva Harper is an adviser to the commander of the US Air Force's 419th Fighter Wing, based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. "Last weekend I was a civilian," she laughs.
Now, she's helping roughly 1,000 people with family issues. After four years of active naval duty in the 1960s, she followed her Air Force husband around. Today, they're both in the Air Force reserves. Three of their four children are on active duty; the fourth will attend basic training in April.
She says in 40 years of military life, she's seen many changes - one of the biggest being the growing acceptance of women. Another is how the military has evolved in its family support, on everything from McFeely's benefits advice to who to call if a hot-water heater breaks.