Sgt. Arthashika Bryant feared her one-year-old daughter would forget who she was during her deployment to Afghanistan. But her 8-year-old son assured her she had nothing to worry about because he would be there to help his sister remember.
So, while Bryant monitored trucks for nine months in and out of the war-torn country, her son, Tyshaun, showed photos of her to his baby sister, Lailonni.
"At age 8 he was the one giving me reassurance that it was going to be OK," the 26-year-old Fort Benning soldier said. "He was a big help."
Bryant is part of the 497th Movement Control Team, of the 203rd Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, which returned to Fort Benning from Afghanistan just in time for Mother's Day. She represents more than 70,000 active-duty women in the U.S. Army, according to statistics provided by the Army's department of public affairs. Many are women trying to balance their motherly duties with serving their country.
Master Sgt. Michelle M. Johnson, a non-commissioned officer who works in the Army's community relations office at the Pentagon, said mothers dedicate their lives to the nation at great sacrifice. She said the average Army family moves about every three years, but most learn to adjust to the military lifestyle.
"Based on the percentage of women in the military, there's a commensurate number of women who are mothers, and some are single mothers, some are dual military mothers, and then there are also women who are married to men who are outside of the military," said the mother of three whose husband is also in the Army. "We sacrifice seeing our sons' and daughters' firsts, seeing them succeed and fail and being there for all those things. We have to sometimes use technology to be part of their lives.
"We do that all in service to the nation because there's a greater calling that we have," she added. "And our children become extremely resilient because they see their mother doing these things in service to something greater and they automatically have a sense of nation, and country, and service in some cases before they're out of grade school."
The balancing act
Bryant, a 2005 graduate of Carver High School, said her father was in the Army and she always wanted to follow in his footsteps. When she had her son, she thought she might have to give up that dream. But she pressed forward and joined the Army two years later.
Once a single mother, Bryant is now getting married this summer. She has had two deployments to Afghanistan since joining the Army. The first was in 2010 when her son was only 3 years old. He stayed with Bryant's mother while she was gone for a year.
Tyshaun said he remembers his mother leaving. He tried to stop the bus so he could go with her, and for a while he said he was very sad. Then he found ways to soothe the pain.
"I did things I like to do like playing a lot of video games, watching TV and playing outside," he said.
Bryant's second deployment was in July 2013, and she found it more difficult because she was leaving two youngsters behind. The children stayed in Columbus with her mother, who received a lot of support from Bryant's future mother-in-law, who lives close by. In addition to Tyshaun showing her daughter pictures, the family also stayed connected through Skype and other technology.
When Bryant returned April 18, her son and daughter greeted her at Freedom Hall with welcome home posters. She's now in a reintegration program to help her transition back into daily life with her family.
"For nine months you are basically dealing with yourself, you don't have the parent responsibility," she said. "I'm still getting used to the whole 'mommy' every five seconds and doing things like combing my daughter's hair."
Bryant said military moms have to deal with a lot of challenges even when they're not deployed. She said some mothers in the general population can work five or seven hours a day, but women in the military are working 12-plus hours.
"Sometimes we have our 24-hour duties, and being that single parent, to me, it's really hard taking the time away so you really can parent," she said. "I'm getting up 4 in the morning, getting them ready, dropping them off, and then I don't see them until probably 5:30 or 6:00 and at that time we're doing homework. We're cooking, I'm cleaning and then it's time for them to go back to bed."
So, she volunteers at her son's school and her daughter's day care to make up for lost time, and she tries to make the most of weekends and holidays.
Johnson, with the Army's community relations office, said they offer many services to help families cope with the demands of an Army life. Services include Family Readiness Groups that provide support to spouses and other caregivers while loved ones are deployed. There's also a Respite Services program for single moms in the Army, dual military families and parents of children with exceptional needs. The program allows parents to take time off to tend to their families depending on the circumstance, Johnson said.
"The military is also an extended family," she said. "We rely on neighbors, friends, wives, daughters of friends, teenagers in the area to help take care of things we can't take care of when we're deployed."
Capt. Naterika Strickland, 36, is a mother of daughters ages 16, 12 and 7. She joined the Army nine years ago and is now stationed at Fort Benning.
Her middle daughter has epilepsy and the Army has been very supportive, allowing her to take off extra time when the child was in ICU.
When stationed at Fort Stewart in Pinefield, Ga., Strickland was deployed to Kuwait for 15 months. Her youngest daughter was 9 months old when she left and 2 years old when she returned. Strickland said she's divorced now, but at that time her husband stayed at home to take care of the children.
She got to see them on Skype and talked with them regularly. But it's still wasn't easy being away from them so long.
"It was a little hard coming home because with the baby she was a little confused," she said. "She wasn't quite sure who I was even though she saw me online. It wasn't until I was home and she saw me every day that she put two-and-two together that 'hey, this is my mom.'"