This past Friday was a “typical mom of 3” type of day. I woke up, got ready for work, took children to school, cheered as my son played Friday night football, and sighed with relief once I wearily crawled into bed.
Days are filled with rushed mornings, color-coded calendars, homework questions, and promises not to hit “snooze” on the alarm once again.
What should not be “typical” is that I do this as a single mom although I am married. Yes, my husband is in the military. No, he is not deployed.
He is currently stationed in Yokosuka, Japan and I cannot follow him. Well, let me rephrase that statement since it is not “technically” correct. I can follow him to his new duty station, but that would mean I have to relinquish physical custody of my children; and herein lies the plight of the blended military family.
My ex-husband and I had been able to resolve things before, and we had always said that the kids can decide where they would like to go and with whom they want to live with. Then, all that changed when my husband received PCS orders to Japan.
Our servicemembers have little choice where they PCS to next. My husband tried for 3 months to get orders to San Diego. Japan was not our first choice and we were slightly disappointed when we got the news; however, we rallied and decided to look at this as an adventure. That is what military life teaches you, resiliency.
We began researching the area and looking at the schools. We discussed the great opportunities this move would provide for the kids, such as immersion in a new culture, climbing Mt. Fuji, trying new foods, and possibly learning a new language. The Sullivan’s Elementary School on Yokosuka Naval Base partners is a local school for cultural exchanges that create friendships and collaboration amongst our countries. The kids were excited and we looked forward to our future family adventure.
My ex-husband, unfortunately, did not see these opportunities. He saw only the hardships and decided that our agreement to allow the kids to choose was no longer an option. Our children decided they wanted to live with me and my husband in Japan; however, my ex-husband said he would only allow that if a judge forced him. Then our year-long custody battle began when he petitioned for physical custody.
Throughout the entire court proceeding, my ex-husband’s lawyer and the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) insinuated that I lived an unstable life due to the constant moving. They implied that my husband could suddenly be relocated at the drop of a hat, which military families know is untrue. PCS orders cannot just be changed on a whim. A lot of planning and money is needed to change orders.
My ex-husband also argued the relocation presented a hardship for HIM to adequately maintain a relationship with the kids because of travel expenses. No consideration about MY relationship with the kids was even presented until my lawyer asked the GAL those questions. Why did the GAL not take my relationship with the kids into consideration? Is it because I am the “mom” and I am better able to maintain a relationship with my kids?
To counter his arguments, I proposed that he would not have to pay child support. That money could instead be used for travel expenses. My ex-husband made no proposals of reduced child support if he was granted custody. In fact, he offered only one summer of visitation to Japan in his proposal during mediation.
After months and thousands of dollars in legal fees and travel expenses to Illinois, the judge denied his petition for physical custody as long as I remained in the state I was currently living in. They indicated that the military lifestyle was not in the “best interest of the children,” thus, my husband, my kids, and I could not live together as a family.
My story, however, is not unique. Over 4 million children in United States live with a step-parent, and approximately 15% of all households are categorized as blended families.[i] Although there is no data showing the number for a blended military family, more than 40% of remarried servicemembers have children from a previous marriage and over 2 million children are classified as military dependents.[ii] While these numbers do not give an exact or approximate number of military children who live in a blended household, the numbers do imply a significant number of blended military families.
At just one military installation for one branch of service, I spoke with several blended military families that are either facing or have faced a similar situation. Jane-Rae Douglas lived in Virginia and her husband received PCS orders to Japan. At first, the judge in Virginia would not allow her son with her ex-husband to leave the state. After thousands of dollars and months later, the judge signed a court order allowing her son to move to Japan so they could stay together.[iii]
Alaina Nicole Link was made to feel embarrassed by a family court in Washington when she filed a letter of intent to change address. Since she did not have a forwarding address, she was berated by a clerk in Pierce County for not knowing where she would be living and left the courthouse in tears. Although she was able to follow her husband to Japan, her family court case needs to be reviewed and none of her calls have been returned.[iv]
Veronica Watkins and her family spent $4,000 in legal fees before her ex-husband agreed to allow their daughter to move to Japan. She was able to prove that the biological father had not objected to the move from Texas to Virginia, so she was able to keep her family together for reduced child support and splitting the cost of travel expenses.[v]
Terrie Mason has consistently dealt with custody issues since 2014 and has spent thousands on legal fees and travel expenses to Florida. She currently lives in Virginia; however, her husband received PCS orders to Japan. Terrie fears that she, like me, will be separated from her husband.[vi]
And this is the burden of the blended military family. These are the issues they face. Families are unnecessarily separated due to the bias of the family court system. They spend thousands of dollars and months in court. Military families are separated enough because of deployments. We do not deserve to be separated because of PCS orders.
People are quick to proclaim their support for our troops, but where is the support for these families? It is support that shows itself during Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, election season, or Patriot Day (9/11). It is in the outrage all over social media as people clamor to “honor our military.” Support for our troops, however, does not show itself in issues that servicemembers and their families face. It does not show itself as biases against the military life present itself in the courtroom. It does not show itself as blended military families are forced to live single parent lives.