Army spouses navigate dual challenge

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Jordan Hammond’s cheerful smile was matched by a rosy outlook as she sat under a wall of family photos that documented trips to Disney World and happy reunions.

Behind the bright exterior existed a darker reality, a weariness. 

This mother of two in Clarksville — like many military spouses — spent months dealing with the double blow of the COVID-19 pandemic and deployment.

Her husband, Jeremiah, is a CW2 Blackhawk pilot with Fort Campbell’s 101st Airborne Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade. Between his Army and Marine Corps service, he’s spent more than a dozen years on active duty. He’s deployed four times, most recently last year.

She’s tired. She’s stressed. This deployment’s felt like no other. 

No breaks. No outlets.

“If I go down,” she said, “the ship’s gonna sink.”

Barbara Davila’s husband, Angel, a major with the 101st Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade, is on his third deployment. The two barely had time to unpack from their move to Clarksville last summer before he was packing up to ship out, leaving her caring for their young children, alone in a new town.

For both women, the difficulties of deployment were layered with the pressures of the pandemic.

A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last June polled over 5,000 U.S. adults, finding significantly elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. That’s particularly true for certain demographics, including younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid caregivers.

Plus, studies have shown deployments associated with mental health issues, kids’ behavioral problems and higher divorce and suicide rates. A Deployment Life Study conducted by the Rand Corporation from 2011 to 2015 surveyed more than 2,700 military families from all branches, finding wide-ranging impacts.

Parenting a special needs child alone 

It’s created an especially complex burden for Hammond, whose daughter Kylah, 7, has a rare brain disorder called Lissencephaly, causing her brain to not fully develop. As Hammond explained, it can lead to epilepsy, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, vision problems and shortened life spans. 

“I’ve grown with it, and I’m open with everybody about it,” Hammond said. At first, she grieved the child she was expecting; then she accepted the child she was given. 

The child she was given is energetic, playful and happy, Hammond said. She’s also a lot of responsibility, requiring constant care, weekly doctor’s appointments and therapy.

Physical therapy. Occupational therapy, Feeding therapy.

They just finished a swallow study at Vanderbilt, so she can resume eating by mouth.

Hammond handles this alone, building her life around the expectation Jeremiah will not be around.

The two met in high school in Chillicothe, Ohio. They married after Jeremiah joined the Marines.

She wasn’t well-versed on the military lifestyle.

Now, she’s used to it. She’s happy to give back by serving as a Soldier and Family Readiness Group leader for her husband’s unit, her way to support other spouses.

What’s she’s not used to: navigating it simultaneously with a public health pandemic, forcing her to rethink day-to-day life with her children, from school to appointments to errands. 

“Most doctors’ offices, you’re only allowed to take the patient and one parent. It’s been challenging to find someone you can trust,” Hammond said.

“You want to think everybody’s following protocols, but you can only take care of your household. I can’t force a babysitter to quarantine for two weeks before she comes into my home.”

Mom, dad, teacher, caregiver

It’s made more difficult with her son completing fifth grade virtually due to concerns about how COVID-19 might impact her medically-fragile daughter. 

“We don’t want any of those problems making her worse,” Hammond said. “We don’t know how she’d handle it.”

She kept both kids home this year for virtual learning.

It hasn’t been great for her son, an energetic boy who loves skateboarding and basketball. Keegan, 11, can’t wait for his dad to come home to install the basketball hoop he got for Christmas; a holiday his dad joined via FaceTime.

“I’m glad I got to hear his voice, because I really missed him,” Keegan said, recalling his dad waiting to open his gifts with the family on FaceTime. They even took photos with “Dad on a stick,” a family joke.

But the ways COVID-19 has challenged them is no laughing matter. Keegan struggles with attention and hyperactivity, making the challenge of online learning harder. 

“He’s tired of sitting on the computer all day long,” she said. “It’s hard for him.”

It’s hard for her too.

“Getting his attention, getting him to do his work is challenging while being mom, dad, teacher, caregiver, everything,” Hammond said.

Increased anxiety, depression

It’s a problem mental health professionals said may be exacerbated by the pandemic, limiting social contact.

Julie Adams, assistant director with Centerstone Clarksville, said she has seen increases in anxiety, depression and adjustment disorders.

She said the need for social distancing, quarantines and stay-at-home orders created concerns about isolation impacts. It’s believed those impacts can be elevated for military families with limited local support structures, although there’s no research on the topic.

“Military families lean on one another, spend a lot of time supporting each other,” Adams said. “That part’s been impacted. We humans need connection. We thrive when we’re connected. That’s one of the coping strategies, getting support from peers. That’s been decreased.”

Adams said the key is finding ways to make connections, despite the distance. 

Adams said she’s also heard of military spouses struggling to adjust to new communities during the pandemic.

Planning for the unknown

That’s felt by Davila, who moved to Clarksville last summer with her husband, just before his third deployment. The two have been married for nearly 12 years — after meeting on MySpace and marrying three months later.

This is their first deployment with kids, including Rosalyn, 6, and twins Fabian and Adan, 3, who seem to be part-boy, part-monkey, always on the go and typically hanging from something.

“I always try to find my little group of support,” Davila said. “It’s harder this time around, because you can’t just meet people, or go to meetings.”

There’s no time. The biggest heartache is putting her career goals on hold — after spending six years as a stay-at-home mom. She finished her degree last May.

“This was going to be my year to start a career, which I’m not able to at the moment because of the uncertainty of the pandemic,” Davila said.

Instead, she started a masters program. 

“It’s been a rollercoaster for me, putting my dreams to the side one more time; not because of the Army, but because of the pandemic,” Davila said.

Her focus on making the best of a difficult situation highlights a strength of military spouses: the ability to adapt to whatever life throws their way. 

“They’ve learned how to manage quick changes,” Adams said.

Said Davila: “I feel like what civilians are struggling with is the unknown,” Davila said. “For the military, that’s our life.

“You’re always planning for the unknown.”

Reach Jennifer Babich at 931-245-0742 or by email at [email protected]

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Saturday June 11, 2022