PHOENIX – Ray Taylor pulls 6-year-old Gracie’s hair into two stiff braids, something he learned how to do on the Internet.
He’s had to figure out how to do a few things on his own since his wife, Jessica, a sergeant in the Air Force, left in October for Iraq.
He’s eliminated the hassle of trying to figure out which little socks belong to which of his two little daughters by buying the girls all new ones: purple stripes for Gracie and pink for Isabelle, who’s 2. Taylor has learned to get everything ready for day care and school the night before: tracking down Isabelle’s shoes and putting Gracie’s Littlest Pet Shop backpack by the door of their Surprise home.
Taylor, 31, who’s also a sergeant in the Air Force, is ribbed by his co-workers at Luke Air Force Base, who call him “Mr. Mom.”
As more women enlist in the military and take on jobs traditionally held by male soldiers, from transportation to security, they’re also being deployed overseas in greater numbers.
The war in Iraq has resulted in the largest deployment of American women to a combat area to date. At the height of the conflict in 2003, one of every seven U.S. troops in Iraq was female. About 11 percent of the 1.8 million active-duty military personnel deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002 have been women. Of those, almost 37 percent are mothers, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. And when Mom goes away to war, Dad is left to soldier on alone.
This is Jessica Taylor’s third tour away from home.
“She’s going to come back when I’m 7 1/2,” says Gracie, whose birthday is this month. Jessica, 26, is expected back by early May.
Gracie is used to saying goodbye to her parents.
Both shipped out at the same time in 2003 – Jessica to Qatar, Ray to Baghdad – when she was just 1. She spent five months with her maternal grandparents in Minnesota. Two years later, her mom left again, this time for Baghdad, while her dad went to Mississippi for five months of training. She stayed with her paternal grandparents in Kentucky.
Now Ray works in education and training, a job that should keep him home even during times of war.
With every conflict, the military has learned more about how to best support families of deployed service personnel, says Shelley MacDermid, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind.
Every branch of the service offers support, including counseling, child-care subsidies, 24-hour help lines and family activities, before, during and after deployment.
The programs have gotten better in the past eight years or so with the increased tempo of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, says Lt. Bryan Bouchard, a spokesman for Luke Air Force Base.
The military recognizes that deployments are difficult for families, whether it’s Mom or Dad who is shipping out, Bouchard says. Good support programs at home can help soldiers focus on their jobs by knowing that their families are being cared for.
At Luke’s airmen and family readiness center, spouses of deployed troops can get free oil changes for their cars and referrals to reliable mechanics. Families also gather at the center for potlucks, to bowl or just talk.
Jessica says in an e-mail from Iraq that Ray has always been a good father. Her deployment has made him an even better one.