Mothers in uniform

The Baltimore Sun

Sue Lynn Downes never took off the charm necklace. Never.

When she was 16, her mother gave her the gold necklace with a heart-shaped charm bearing the word "Daughter." After her son was born, Downes added a tiny pair of baby shoes, and later her two children gave her a "Best Mom" charm. She wore the necklace through basic training. She wore it when she was deployed to Iraq. And the Army corporal wore it the day a land mine twisted her Humvee like a washcloth, killing two fellow soldiers and leaving her so badly injured that doctors had to amputate both her legs.

Downes, 28, who has lived in Silver Spring since 2006 while undergoing treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, knows all too well that she stands out among war veterans as a woman and a double amputee. She is also part of a growing contingent of mothers who have been posted overseas in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Nearly seven times as many women have been deployed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as in the first Gulf War, and so far, 10 times as many have died.

Although women are not assigned to combat arms units, they, like male soldiers, have faced increased exposure to combat in the current conflict, which makes them vulnerable to the psychological effects of war. Conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression can haunt them long after they return.

Experts say that mothers might have to deal with burdens and sacrifices that are different from those faced by fathers who served.

"In this current generation of young people, men's roles at home are changing a lot," said Col. Denise Dailey, the military director of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.

"With that said, women are still the primary caregivers for children. ... And I think it's difficult for them to turn those roles over to husbands and family members when they deploy."

Though Downes thinks society views men and women in war differently - and that many believe that a mother should not leave her children - she doesn't see it that way.

"I think men and women are equal, and we both feel the same way about being away from our kids and families," she said. "The men carried pictures of their kids, and I did, too."

Getting ready

Before she was deployed to Iraq for a year in 2004, Lt. Latisha Turner of Baltimore tried to ready her daughter, Kyshea, now 10.

She didn't want her child to think negatively about the military. She wanted her to know that her mother chose to join the Maryland National Guard as a college student because it helped her get her degree and equipped her for the work force.

Preparing herself for her deployment was harder. She prayed a lot, but she still worried. "Daddy and Grandma, they can all love the children. But there's something about a mother's love," said Turner, 28. "You need Mommy's nurturing. I just think it's totally different."

It was especially difficult initially, because phone and Internet service were inconsistent in western Iraq, where Turner was helping to manage the flow of water, food and equipment across the country.

Later, she and her daughter would talk more regularly. But hearing her voice sometimes made her longing worse.

"You don't want your soldiers to see you break. I had to stay strong. But I am a woman and a mother. I could only take so much," Turner said. "Sometimes I just had to go off to the side and get it out."

She missed two of her daughter's birthdays, and when she finally came home, even her daughter's facial features had changed. Weeks passed before she felt remotely settled.

"It felt different. It wasn't the same," Turner said. "I felt like I missed so much, and I wanted to make up for it."

She now works full time for the National Guard helping to train soldiers for combat and is earning a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling so she can work with service members returning from war. She knows there is always a chance she will be sent back overseas.

"I would never volunteer to go on a mission, but I will tell you this: I am a soldier, so I'm not going to run away from the mission. And I've explained that to my daughter, too," she said.

In focus groups with veterans, the issue that surfaces most frequently among mothers is that they missed having other women to talk to about their common experiences, Dailey said.

Others reported that when they returned from a war zone, they had to instantly pick up where they left off - overseeing schoolwork, cooking, attending sporting events.

"They are immediately being put back into those roles as a mother and care provider and source of all knowledge in the family," Dailey said. "They are worried that they're not getting decompression time."

When mothers are wounded, it can render that transition all the more challenging, said Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a psychiatrist with the Army surgeon general.

"If you lost a limb, you may not be able to do the things you used to be able to do. It may be especially poignant if you can't take care of your child in the way you want to," she said.

Eager for action

Downes joined the Army in 2004, following in the footsteps of her husband, Gabe, who had received a medical discharge because of a back injury. She was bored at her nursing job and wanted to see action. Her blond looks and cool demeanor belie her constitution: She liked kicking down doors and jumping through windows, her husband said.

In February 2006, Sue Downes was deployed to Logar province in Iraq. As a member of the military police, Downes said, she conducted searches, detained "bad guys" and transported supplies to small villages.

Like so many soldiers, she hid the worst tales from her family, focusing in phone conversations on the humanitarian missions and what was happening in their lives. Sometimes her young son would sing to her on the phone. "You are my sunshine," he would repeat.

During her calls home, Downes would pepper her husband with questions. Was he cutting their son's food in triangles, the way he liked it? Was he reading with their daughter?

It weighed heavily on her that she couldn't be there for her son's first day of kindergarten and that no one else could fix her daughter's curly hair the right way. When Halloween rolled around, she went online and bought her children costumes-Captain America for Austin and Tinkerbell for Alexis.

Downes volunteered for her last mission, a Nov. 28, 2006, trip into the mountains to take food supplies to a village before winter.

Usually, she was the driver, but that day, she offered to be the gunner, or lookout. The last thing she remembers is the vehicle shifting into gear as they headed up the mountain in the snow. She learned later that the driver and her squad leader had been killed in the explosion.

It was strange, she said, but she never felt that sad about her legs; she always knew she would be able to walk again. She was more worried about her family's reaction. She thought they would be angry with her.

But when she was finally reunited with her children, they didn't care about her injuries.

"She was still Mom," said Gabe Downes. "They never looked at anything else."

Her daughter is finishing the school year in Tennessee, where she is living with her grandmother, but her son wanted to be with his parents. They have been home-schooling him since he moved to Maryland in the fall. Come summer, they'll all return to rural Tennessee.

She is getting better all the time at using her prosthetic legs, and she really wants to get back to doing regular mom things - making spaghetti dinners and her son's beloved peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, she said, and just having the kids be able to depend on her.

She is thinking of returning to school to study graphic design.

Downes doesn't think she has changed, but her daughter noticed she smiles less. And sometimes, it's true, she feels distant. She thinks all the time about the fellow soldiers she lost that day.

She has more patience with the children, she said - that's another difference.

And she's more appreciative. "When they're laughing or playing, I watch them more," she said. "You pay attention to the little things."

She squeezes them so intensely now that sometimes her son wriggles away. "'OK, Mom,' he'll say, 'OK ... stop.'"

"I thought they needed it, and they did," she said. "But now that things are back to semi-normal, they don't crave it as much."

As for her necklace: It was missing for many months, and Downes figured it was gone forever.

But one day, somehow, it ended up in her mother's mailbox in Tennessee. It was battered but salvageable, so her mother had it fixed up and gave it to her one year ago - on Mother's Day.

She hasn't taken it off since.

Women at war

As of March, 26,326 women were deployed out of a total of 271,259 service members. Women represented 191,570 of the 1,717,925 service members deployed since 2001. During that period, 107 women were killed.

In contrast, 40,000 women were deployed in the first Gulf War and 11 were killed. About 7,500 women served in Vietnam, most of them as nurses.

[Source: U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services]

An article on Page 1A in Sunday's editions incorrectly reported the country where Army Cpl. Sue Lynn Downes was serving when she was injured in a land mine explosion. The country was Afghanistan.The Sun regrets the error.
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