Of all titles I hold, Mother is the one that has brought me here today to speak to you. I am an Army wife as well, but that is a role I chose shortly after 9/11 with full knowledge of what I was getting myself into. War was imminent, terror threat levels were the new casual conversation and I was marrying a career soldier who told me his duty would always come first. And I signed up for that.
I signed up to serve my country, too.
And when my husband ran off with the other love of his life, the Army, to fight on the battlefields of Afghanistan as an Infantry Platoon Sergeant, I proudly kissed him goodbye as he patted my belly and told our daughter to behave for mama. He told her he’d be back to meet her when his work was done.
My husband was due home on leave for my daughter’s birth the following summer of 2006. He would arrive a day late to meet her, but in military life it was understood that a day late was far better than not at all.
Our daughter, RM, was born with special needs and required intensive medical care. She barely survived those first weeks and yet at 15 days old, my husband kissed her goodbye and headed back to Afghanistan. He would return home again on a Red Cross alert just days later as our baby girl began slipping away. My husband remained by her side for another two weeks of emergency leave to watch her inch her way to stable condition before leaving her in her hospital bed once again to return to war. Because that is what we signed up for.
It was my job to serve on the home-front. Our daughter had a feeding tube and was in congestive heart failure. She had open-heart surgery at 4 months old, but by then Daddy was home to help and RM’s health was improving. Not once did we worry about finding her the medical care she required. We felt blessed to be a military family and often joked that we only paid eight dollars for hospital parking for open-heart surgery – as it should be when you serve your country.
In early 2010, under falling snowflakes my husband kissed his healthy, beautiful little girl goodbye once more as the battalion loaded up and headed back to Afghanistan. This was Army life, so we wiped our tears and held our heads high, proudly waving to Daddy as they pulled away.
Now a Sergeant Major, it was only a month into my husband’s second tour in Afghanistan when he received my call to tell him – his baby girl had autism.
“What does that mean?” he said. “Please. Please tell me that she isn’t going to fall down the deep dark hole of autism.”
But I had no answers for him. I had no hope to offer.
I had no points of contact as an active duty Guard family. I had no one to ask, “What do I do next?” For the next several months, there were many more phone calls to my husband in Afghanistan, and still I had no answers to offer him.
What I had learned was that autism therapies were largely unavailable to our military families. I had learned that the small amount of services offered through the Extended Care Health Option were grossly inadequate and often impossible for military families on the move to access.
My husband has served honorably for 25 years. He was a scout sniper in Desert Storm. He has earned a bronze star, an army commendation medal and a combat infantryman badge with star for his service throughout two tours in Afghanistan. He has also been awarded a meritorious service medal, three more army commendation medals, six army achievement medals, and eight good conduct medals. He has earned the right to retire. But he cannot. Because he worries every day for our daughter and her future and he knows that he loses what little services are available to treat her autism if he retires. He worries every day that if he gets sick or injured and is medically retired, that he loses that coverage.
There is one more tour to Afghanistan on our horizon. And my Command Sergeant Major will go once again when duty calls. Because that is what he signed up for. That is what our service as a family requires of us.
But not being given access to the care our children need is NOT what we signed up for. This is NOT what any military family deserves. We sacrifice so much – YEARS at a time and we complain little.
Since my daughter’s diagnosis of autism, it has been my determination to see that the right thing is done here. Because if you ask any military family what they DID sign up for, they will tell you – freedom – yours and mine.
And as a mother, I simply cannot let any of our military kids go without the treatments they so desperately need to which their service to our country undoubtedly entitles them to. Because they did not sign up for THIS.