June 1, 2004
Women, including many mothers, are showing up regularly among the lists of casualties in Iraq. Although their numbers are still far lower than those for men, the portion of casualties who are women increases with every war in which which the United States engages.
In 14 months of fighting in Iraq, 20 women have died as a result of injuries suffered there, and 162 have been wounded. Of the wounded, 99 were so badly injured they could not return to active duty, according to the Washington Post and the Department of Defense.
Like many men, women enlist in the military hoping to buy a ticket to a better life for themselves and for their children. About 45 percent of the 20,000 women serving in Iraq are mothers, according to the Woman's Research and Education Institute. About 50 percent of enlisted women are members of racial and ethnic minority groups, with African-American women outnumbering white women in the Army.
The social policies of the United States have been pushing mothers of color into the military.
The welfare reform laws of 1996 deprived poor mothers of the option to stay at home. Although some states have tried to help parents with childcare expenses, the federal government does not require that parents, even parents of preschool-age children, be given any childcare assistance.
Any working parent knows that good childcare is not cheap or easily found. Yet these parents are required to work 30 hours a week outside their homes, even if they earn only the subsistence income that Temporary Assistance to Needy Families provides.
As a result, many of these women work two jobs that consequently keep them away from their children.
For many women with ambition and drive who are trapped in this situation, the military makes a sensible option. Like many men, they want the educational benefits, the job training and the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the nation. When you have to leave your children at home and go to work, the military may seem like a good place to go.
But more alternatives need to exist.
The risks we are taking with our policies are enormous. Some mothers are returning to their children drastically altered by having served in the war. Some will not be coming home at all.
Women can and should do whatever they are capable of and willing to do, including fighting on the front lines in military jobs not yet open to women.
But we need to ensure that the options available to poor mothers, who are disproportionately people of color, are not so limited as to force their hands.
Their children need them.
Starita Smith is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denton, Texas, where she is a doctorate student in sociology at the University of North Texas. She is a former reporter and editor at the Austin American-Statesman, the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch and the Gary (Ind.) Post-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.