A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

When a Mother Is Deployed

March 15, 2011

By Marjorie Musick

Mona Pearl

As an Air Force colonel, Mason researcher Mona Pearl has been interested in the health and welfare of American service members for many years. In a recent study, “Military Women’s Perceptions of the Effect of Deployment on Their Role as Mothers and on Adolescents’ Health,” she found that a woman’s military deployment affects her health, as well as that of her adolescent children.

“War-induced separation impacts family life with unique stressors related to the dangerous aspects of deployment,” says Pearl. “Additional factors—such as new living arrangements for the children and fear of parental death or injury—exacerbate these stresses.”

Pearl analyzed responses from 77 women who had recently completed a military deployment and were mothers of children ages 10 to 18 years. Participants completed web-based questionnaires based on their experiences at varying times after return. The majority of respondents were in the Air Force and Army, and more than 60 percent of the women had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Pearl found that deployment served as a catalyst for health and behavior change of both mothers and their adolescent children—and the longer the deployment, the greater the effect. She also discovered strong correlations between the number of symptoms women experienced during deployment, such as cough, headaches, and joint and back pain, and the number of days deployed.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Diana Garcia-Sanchez, right, and Staff Sgt. Sean Stromer, both with 73rd Expeditionary Air Control Squadron, perform a radar check to verify aircraft reflections are discernible at Kandahar International Airport, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chad Chisholm/Released)

In addition, Pearl found that a longer deployment leads to increased risk behaviors among adolescent children, primarily with a drop in school grades, poor nutrition, and decreased exercise.

Other risk factors, such as physical fights, drinking alcohol, and illegal drug use, were exhibited in small percentages. Military women could often mitigate these risks on return, but the drop in school grades persisted over time.

Despite the hardships and personal sacrifice, participants expressed deep satisfaction with, and commitment to, their military work and careers. Pearl, who was separated from her daughter several times while deployed, empathizes with the women in the study.

“These military women believe in what they do. They believe in the mission, and what they believe in terms of their commitment and their work is very high. This is very much a personal part of their lives and a personal part of their own self-development that becomes a part of them,” she says.

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