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Can We Do Better?

Jennifer McDonald
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tagged: military life, deployment
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Update Feb. 19, 2014:

When I first wrote this article, charges had been filed against Tiffany Klapheke for severe neglect of her three children and the starvation death of her toddler. Her defense was that she was too stressed by her husband’s deployment and her own history of abuse to care properly for her children.

Last week, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the death of 22-month-old Tamryn. According to the news report, she will be eligible for parole in 15 years. (You have GOT to be kidding me)

I will not watch any of the footage of her post-sentencing interviews. There is no defense that can stand up, in my mind, to failing in the basics of parenting: feeding and basic carefor the children you gave birth to.

A military judge has also sentenced Senior Airman Christopher Perez to three years’ confinement and a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force for his role in the case. (Apparently he was engaged in an affair with the mother and failed to act on the children’s behalf in spite of witnessing the circumstances.)

Two adults…three little children…and the adults failed them miserably.

(photo credits: photo pin)

I felt ill when I read the headline: “Woman charged in connection to death of 22-month-old girl at Dyess AFB.”  A mother of three, Tiffany Klapheke, has been charged with three felony counts of injury to a young child—her own children. One child died, and the two others required intensive care due to extreme neglect. It saddens me to think this unthinkable situation could have been preventable. 

Among military spouses, the reaction to this story has been heated. With her husband deployed at the time this occurred, the mother has been quoted as saying she was “too stressed” to properly care for the children. It seems a slap in the face to other military spouses that someone could use deployment as an “excuse” for what happened. Others have pointed out that she somehow managed to feed and care for herself. The thought that she must be suffering from mental illness been raised. And believe me, I am not here to defend—nor accuse—this mother. I don’t know all the facts.

And neither do you.

It’s shocking. We’re outraged. And rightly so. No child deserves that. And we wonder: how could this happen?

Over my 24 years as a military spouse, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve held a friend’s hand in the ER and witnessed her mental breakdown before her admission to the psychiatric ward. I’ve kept vigil with families in the nightmare following suicide (several of those, unfortunately). I’ve called on First Sergeants and chaplains for help and advice when I’ve realized a spouse is simply not coping well, and it’s gotten beyond me stopping by with brownies. I’ve seen spouses not react well to deployments, living overseas, or military life in general, and have tried my best to be helpful yet not intrusive. It’s a balancing act.

Those experiences coupled with this latest story have compelled me to think about our military spouse culture, one I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of. It’s prodded me to evaluate how I come across to others and makes me wonder… can we do better?

Do we focus too much on being “tough”?

Like many of you, I have the perspective of being both a pre- and post-9/11 spouse. Things have changed greatly in the past decade. It is not the same Air Force it was when my husband signed up in the 80s. Deployment tempo is high. Military spouses pride ourselves on being strong and resilient, and rightly so. But I can’t help wondering… have we unwittingly created an atmosphere of 'toughness' that causes shame to those who need real help? I’ve read comments from other military spouses that say this young mother basically needed to buck up and get over herself. While that may have an element of truth to it, do statements like that help someone in real need—to tell them to put on their ‘big girl panties’ and get over it? I am all for personal responsibility, for being strong and independent, for attempting to keep my sense of humor, for laughing at ridiculous circumstances (Murphy's law when hubby is gone), but… I hope I have never made it impossible for someone to speak up who was truly floundering and in need of more than a laugh or “atta girl” speech.

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