The Baltimore Sun

At age 39, when many folks are starting to slow down a bit, Siobhan Healy enlisted in the Army National Guard. At basic training, she aced her physical fitness test, scoring even higher than the "perfect" total of 300 points.

After 20 weeks of basic and advanced military training, she got home this month to Baltimore's Gwynn Oak neighborhood and her 13 children. Thirteen. Ages 18 to 2 years old. The last seven in a five-year span.

Taking a breather? Nope.

She has applied for a job with the Baltimore Police Department, started work on a degree in criminal justice and is preparing to be deployed with the 200th Military Police Company, based in Catonsville, for security duty at the presidential inaugural in Washington.

Ahead lie probable deployments overseas, to Iraq, Afghanistan or any of the other trouble spots where American military police are in demand.

"I have lived here 18 years, and I wanted to give back to my country, seeing how great it is," says Healy, a German native who got her U.S. citizenship this fall. "Not to minimize Germany, but I love the United States."

If the National Guard once had a reputation as a neighborly social club for boys - women were excluded until 1956 - those days are long gone. Women are now actively recruited and make up about 10 percent of the 460,000 members of the Army Guard and Air Guard.

And the dangers are real.

About 75,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen are currently mobilized on federal service, many - including more than 150 from Maryland - deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Seven from the Maryland Guard have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to Pentagon data.

Over the next eight years, the term of her enlistment, Siobhan knows that probable long deployments are likely to be a problem.

"Whether it's right to leave home for six months, leave the kids ... my husband thought it was a good idea," she says. "He's always encouraged me to do what I feel is right in my heart."

But at first, she wasn't sure of that support. When the Maryland National Guard mailed a recruiting postcard to her 18-year-old son, Siobhan snatched it out of the mail and called the recruiter.

When she finally got around to telling her husband, her story was that the recruiter had called her instead of the other way around.

"I didn't want him to think that I wanted to get away from the family," she recalls. "It was a little white lie."

Husband Christopher Healy, 65, stepped up to the plate, adding child care to his full-time job as a plumber.

But when Siobhan left for basic training, things predictably went awry. The nanny they'd hired got sick, then severely ill, and passed away. Christopher flew around interviewing and hiring a replacement, chauffeuring kids here and there, buying the groceries. Holding things together.

One thing he didn't do was call Mom to report the chaos back home.

"During basic, I didn't know what was going on: My husband didn't want to tell me a lot; he didn't want me to worry," says Siobhan.

At basic, the Army strictly limits phone calls, to discourage young recruits from hanging out on the phone with girlfriends or boyfriends. The rule wasn't made for mothers of 13. "I was able to call home only three times," she said. Those must have been some phone calls.

Siobhan grew up in southern Germany around American military bases, watching the tanks roll out on exercises. She settled on a career in submarines, only to be told women aren't accepted for undersea service.

She married a GI, became an Army wife and moved to the United States 18 years ago. Children followed. Her dream of being a soldier faded. Then came a divorce, a second marriage and more kids, including three sets of twins.

The postcard from the Maryland National Guard was an invitation to join its 5,000 Army Guard and 1,400 Air National Guard volunteers.

The Maryland Guard has 157 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A helicopter company is deploying to Kosovo; another unit is headed for Korea, and other units are returning from deployments to Japan and Senegal in West Africa. Some 1,400 troops of the 58th Brigade Combat Team returned last year from a tour in Iraq, and additional missions are pending.

That operations tempo will put a strain on all Maryland Guard families, including the Healys.

Already, says Siobhan, "we've had our share of difficulties." Says Christopher: "If it had a tune, you could sing it."

She adds, "But it's the right thing to do, to serve your country."

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