A Mother and Officer Prepares to Go to War

Mandi Bohrer has wanted to be in the military ever since high school. After graduating from West Point in 1998, she was stationed in South Korea, where she met her husband. She was looking for excitement and was eager to be deployed. As a captain, she served at the Pentagon after 9/11, and went to Baghdad twice. After her second tour in Iraq, she and her husband decided to start a family.

In January, Bohrer, now 34 and a major, will be deployed again, this time to Afghanistan. But preparing for this tour was more complicated. Bohrer and her husband, who is also an Army major, now have a 4-year-old daughter. Her husband, too, is being deployed to Afghanistan. "It weighs very heavily on me," says Bohrer. "But if I don't step in and go, someone else will have to. Someone else will have to leave their family."

As President Obama looked out over the cadets at West Point on Dec. 1 and announced plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, I was struck by how many women were in the audience. And when the first of those troops were called up last week, I found myself thinking about how women like Major Bohrer prepare themselves for war.

The balancing act between career and family is always difficult. But the military's frequent and long tours—one year is now standard—make an already complicated situation unimaginably so. As a hardworking mother in the civilian world, I can only wonder at the tough choices mothers in the military must face. When my babysitter is sick, I have the luxury of working from home. Last month a single mom in Savannah, Ga., faced criminal charges after she skipped her deployment because she couldn't find anyone to care for her infant son.

Women now make up 11 percent of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 40 percent have children, according to a report by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and some 30,000 single mothers have been deployed since 2001. Women aren't supposed to be assigned to combat jobs, but it is still dangerous duty—as of early December, 124 servicewomen had died in our two wars.

Bohrer says she is lucky: her family is very supportive, and her husband plays a big role in caring for their daughter. She is fortunate to have been stationed stateside for several years early on in her child's life. (The Army guarantees new mothers a deployment deferral of only six months.) But the Bohrers, who have been planning their departure for a year, had to choose between staggering their deployments—and spending nearly three years apart—or going at the same time and leaving their daughter behind. They chose to go together; their daughter will spend the year with Bohrer's parents in south Texas.

Because she's so young, Bohrer's daughter doesn't understand that her mother's assignment is with the International Security Assistance Force. But as a military kid she knows that parents sometimes carry guns. "She knows we're soldiers. We tell her we're problem solvers and she understands that," Bohrer says. "We tell her we're going to help other boys and girls who live in Afghanistan." Her mother has shown the girl where Afghanistan is on a map and explained that she'll be away for her birthday, but back right after next Christmas. Bohrer plans to call home weekly, and hopes to have occasional video chats. The Bohrers have left detailed plans for their daughter's care, updated their wills, and documented their last wishes. "My parents will be handling all my affairs and taking care of her if anything happens to us," she says.

Bohrer believes she is ready to go. Her daughter is already staying with her parents and is attending preschool. So far, the separation seems to be going well. "But each day I keep thinking about that one day when we say our goodbyes and have our hugs," Bohrer says. "I keep wondering how I'll behave. It wouldn't help her to see her parents crying."

Bohrer wonders if there will come a time when the costs of her military career become too great. But she says she cannot imagine living her life any other way. She thinks she can be a good mother and a good officer. I believe her. I envy her deep sense of duty and her conviction that she can make the world a better place for her child. I don't envy the emotional farewell she is facing. For the next year, when I tuck my daughter into bed, I will think of Major Bohrer, and the day she can again do the same for her daughter.