I’m not from a military family so Memorial Day has mostly been about a three day weekend, grilling, and maybe giving a tiny bit of thought to members of the military who have fought in various U.S. wars. But, in the last couple of years, Memorial Day has taken on so much more significance for me, and it seems rather fitting that this weekend I’m working on my dissertation– writing about the mothers of current U.S. service members who have been deployed in the U.S. war on terrorism.

Mothers, and all members of a service person’s family, often refer to themselves as “the silent ranks.” And they are a key part of the “ranks” of the military in many ways. Next to the troops, family members shoulder the majority of this particular war. Unlike previous U.S. wars (WWI and WWII), the public has not been asked to do much– we are not planting victory gardens, living with rations, working in factories, or collecting scrap metal and even lard for the manufacturing of weapons and supplies.

The military knows how important the families of service members are– for both recruitment and deployment support. You may have noticed the Army recruitment commercials specifically target parents. The Army knows they need parental support to enlist new Soldiers. Often these commercials focus on Army service as an opportunity for training, for an education, for a career, while also telling parents how strong their children will become when they join. Thus the motto “You made them strong: We’ll make them Army Strong.”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8MBbaz61kU[/youtube] [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TUbnGXqI1s[/youtube]

Despite the fact that the military is changing, and more women are joining, homefront support remains largely gendered. The video below “Army Families = Army Strong” is one that the Army put together as a tribute to the work these silent ranks do during wartime.


What is striking (but not surprising) to me about this video tribute is how gendered the home front is. With a few exceptions (a few female Soldiers), this video mostly depicts wives left at home taking care of young children. These families (women and children) need to be strong to deal with the stress and anxiety of having a loved one deployed, and to carry on their day to day lives. The military also needs them to be strong– to hold down the home front, send supportive packages and emails to deployed Soldiers, and to be there for Soldiers to come home to. As the voice over says “they wear a different uniform… theirs is a uniform of strength… the strength of courage, integrity, and sacrifice.” Even if they aren’t deployed to a war zone, families are enlisted to military service along with the Soldiers.

For my dissertation I interviewed 60+ mothers of service members (and hundreds more in online support groups) who also describe themselves as part of these “silent ranks.” I would love to be able to share their incredible stories here, but I only have their permission to write about the for research purposes. So instead I’ll write about what I’ve learned from them about how complicated home front war support is for mothers.

Like other military family members, the mothers of service members also see themselves as members of the military– even when they are more removed from receiving the kinds of benefits a military wife (or husband) would receive. Here are some of the slogans mothers use to identify themselves as a strong, tough, part of the military:


Usually when we think about the mothers of service members, the most publicly active (and anti-war) ones come to mind. Like Cindy Sheehan:



While many mothers of service members take the same war stance as Cindy Sheehan, most have widely different, and often contradictory relationships to war (just as other military family members do, I imagine). My research is about these contradictions. Some mothers disagree with the war, but publicly support their child’s mission– and want the war to succeed. Others disagree with the war but would never say so publicly for fear of being seen as unpatriotic. Some just want the troops to come home safely. Others support the war fully, and some who support the war fully see anti-war mothers like Cindy Sheehan as degrading to the job their children are doing.


Mothers of service members may have opposing ideas about war, but they all feel unbelievable anxiety for their deployed child. They cry in the grocery store when they see their son’s favorite food. They panic every time an unknown car pulls into the driveway, fearing that dress uniforms will show up at their door. And they all feel a duty to their deployed child (to send care packages, buy their child supplies etc.), and feel a sense duty to all the troops and military families– taking part in efforts to make sure the troops and their families feel supported.

Here are some images of different mothers supporting the troops in different ways (these images are all public domain, and none are mothers in my study):






Finally, take a few minutes to watch this video interview with Vicki Castro, whose son was killed in Iraq (“life as you know it stops…”). I can’t embed the video here, but it is worth clicking on and watching.