Why Supporting Our Troops Means Supporting Their Families

4-25_-_Heidi_Murkoff_4.jpgHeidi Murkoff is the author of the best selling pregnancy book of all time, What to Expect When You're Expecting.

Nobody ever said being pregnant or becoming a mom was easy -- not even under the best circumstances, with the best medical care, the best support system, an unlimited budget and unlimited resources. Not even with your partner a text away, your friends and family close by.

But imagine what it’s like to be a mom-to-be in the military -- tackling the heavy lifting of nurturing a baby while doing the hard work of serving her country. Maybe she’s Active Duty, maybe she’s a spouse, but either way she’s almost certainly serving far from her family, friends, and her network of support. Perhaps thousands of miles away in Guam or South Korea, Italy or Germany -- or at a U.S. base that’s so far from home it might as well in another country, like Alaska.

Now imagine that her partner is deployed and her family and friends are too far to manage a visit, leaving her essentially alone for all or part of her pregnancy, maybe even for delivery and baby’s first months. Facing one of life’s most challenging experiences -- bringing a new life into the world -- without that network of support most of us take for granted.

Now imagine this military mom is based in a part of the world where cultural differences, local customs, even a language barrier may make life overwhelming, especially for a young woman experiencing a first pregnancy. Where the food isn’t familiar, or particularly healthy or affordable (especially on the relatively small military paycheck her family receives), making getting the right nutrition and gaining the right amount of weight difficult.

4-25_-_Heidi_Murkoff_3.jpgWhere the quality specialized care she and her baby need may be conveniently available -- or it may be many hours away, sometimes necessitating long trips for appointments or even “storks-nesting” (where high-risk women must spend weeks or even months at temporary housing on a different base to access higher level care than is available locally). Maybe OB care isn’t offered at all on her base, meaning pregnant soldiers and spouses must seek care in the local community --  sometimes at a clinic where English isn’t spoken and where pregnancy and delivery protocols may be very different than in the U.S.

And then imagine this mom packing up and leaving again in another two-to-four years – maybe while she’s pregnant for the second or third time, with toddlers in tow, while her spouse is deployed (again). Having to start fresh at a new base, in a new community, maybe a new country -- and facing these new challenges with swollen ankles and clamoring kids: pack, unpack, find housing, locate resources her family depends on.

Where is prenatal testing done? Lab work for the kids? Are clinics open on holidays and weekends? How long are the waits for appointments? Where do you take a sick baby in an emergency? What about if your water breaks and you’re not at term? Or your pregnancy has just turned high risk but the base hospital isn’t equipped to handle it? Where do you find WIC (the Women’s and Children’s nutritional support program so many military moms and their little ones depend on for food)? Is there lactation support? Childbirth classes? How about specialized care for a child with special needs not covered by the military’s health insurance system, TRICARE? Will PCS (“permanent” change of station) to another state mean getting on another Medicaid wait-list? What if there’s no NICU but a mom has a history of preterm labor?

What if prenatal, postnatal and newborn care options are limited due to a rural location and no base hospital? What about mental health services a mom or her family may need (parents in the military are more likely to suffer from depression and other mood disorders, especially when there is a deployment in the family)? What about services for behavioral, developmental or emotional issues that young children of deployed fathers or mothers are more likely to experience?

4-25_-_Heidi_Murkoff_2.jpgSix years ago, when I started hosting baby showers for military moms, I had only the vaguest idea of the challenges facing these women and their families -- or the sacrifices they made. “Support the troops” was a bumper sticker  that summoned up images of military men and women in combat -- not military moms in labor. Or moms struggling to care for their children, facing complicated pregnancies, or pregnancy loss, or postpartum or pregnancy depression or anxiety disorder, or recovering from a C-section with their partner deployed and their family and friends far away. Something else I never pictured: families serving our country unable to secure vital, affordable healthcare for their little ones with special needs or complex medical conditions.

But now, I know -- and I believe, everyone should know -- what’s at stake when we’re talking about military families. At a recent baby shower in Germany, the base commander who came to support and speak to the moms- and dads-to-be we were celebrating put everything we as a nation need to remember about military families in perspective. His message: Supporting our troops in combat means supporting their families at home, wherever that home may be. Readiness means more than training and equipment. It means knowing the families they love will be cared for, and that they will receive the healthcare they need and deserve.

Let me be clear: I’ve been honored to meet and talk to hundreds of highly-trained, compassionate OBs, pediatricians, nurses, midwives and others who care for military moms, babies and kids at base hospitals and clinics around the world, and I’ve seen first-hand their tireless service and dedication to the health and well-being of military families. I’ve seen, in some cases, state-of the-art NICUs and mom- and baby-friendly delivery practices at work. But I’ve also seen services uncomfortably stretched. I’ve heard of long wait times for appointments and referrals, both especially difficult for families with sick kids to negotiate. That’s not okay for any family, let alone a military family.

April is Month of the Military Child. But to honor our military children -- our littlest heroes, who often grow up with a parent deployed to a dangerous part of the world and who must move every two-to-four years, switching schools, giving up familiar care givers and health care providers, we must also honor the women who bring them into the world under the difficult circumstances they do.

4-25_-_Heidi_Murkoff_1.jpgWe must support not just the troops, but their families, recognizing their service and sacrifice not just through hashtag campaigns, or even baby showers, but by providing them with the best healthcare and resources we can, such as the Centering Pregnancy Program which offers nurturing group care for expectant women. Let’s also make sure services they and their families depend on for nutritional support, such as WIC and SNAP, are scaled up -- not cut back. And let’s provide doulas to military moms, especially those whose partners are deployed, as a much-needed source of support during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum.

The truth is military spending covers so much more than bigger guns, faster missiles and more powerful bombs. It covers the basic needs of our military families, and, in my opinion, it should cover their needs far better than it currently does. With consistently high-quality healthcare that is comprehensive and doesn’t come with limits, caps or co-pays that financially-strapped military families can’t afford. To protect and expand Medicaid coverage in all states, to ensure no military child with special needs or complex medical needs is left on a wait-list for urgent services.

I urge you to put that in your military budget, Mr. President and Members of Congress: To make healthcare for military families the priority it should be. And then I urge you to think about the moms, babies and kids who sacrifice so much as they serve. Think about how our troops can never be truly ready if they’re worrying about the well-being of the families they left behind.

And then… I urge you to put in a lot more.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Heidi Murkoff.

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