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Mother’s Day another difficult holiday for military moms

Army Sgt. Phoebe Ervin, of Hempstead, kisses her

Army Sgt. Phoebe Ervin, of Hempstead, kisses her daughter Dennise Gregory, 4, during a ceremony, April 4, 2004, welcoming Ervin home from Iraq at Fort Totten in Queens. Her company had been deployed for a year. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Deena Menendez’s eldest son is at a Coast Guard base in Oregon, preparing for a monthslong voyage to the coast of South America, where the cutter he serves aboard chases seaborne drug smugglers.

Her youngest boy is at a Marines station in San Diego, preparing for an unspecified deployment in March.

Such is the life of thousands of Long Island moms, whose sons and daughters are away on military assignments and cannot be home to greet them with festive brunches or bunches of spring flowers this Mother’s Day.

“Of course I miss them, and wish they could be here,” said Menendez during a conversation in the kitchen of her Hauppauge home. “But they are in the military. It’s not like they can just decide on their own and fly home for the weekend.”

Mother’s Day and other holidays can be especially stressful for military families like the Menendezes, who have two sons on active duty, and a third who served in the Army until 2014. Menendez’s husband, Ed, is an Air Force veteran.

For some, it is the unease of coping with the absence of military sons and daughters, and the worry that the rigors of training or combat deployments could put them at risk.

For others, it is the difficulty of helping a family member who is having trouble reintegrating into family life — reintegrations that for one in five veterans is made more difficult because of anxieties related to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veterans experiencing trouble often engage in “numbing” or “avoidance” behaviors, such as drinking too much or staying away from family gatherings, said Dr. Charlene Thomesen, associate chief of staff for mental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport.

“We definitely see upticks of these behaviors around the holidays,” Thomesen said.

That stress also can appear when it’s the mother who wears the fatigues.

Former Army Sgt. Phoebe Erwin, 48, of Rockville Centre, spent Mother’s Day 2004 in Kuwait during an Iraq War deployment. She said she had steeled herself to avoid becoming overly emotional, while saying goodbye to her then 3-year-old daughter the day she was deployed.

“There were no tears from me when I left her,” she said, recounting her farewell to her daughter, Dennise Gregory. “The soldier in me took over. I didn’t even look back.”

The Menendez family said they have observed signs of anxiety in each other when one of the boys has been off in military service.

When the middle son, Scott Walsh, left home to enlist in 2010, his sister, Starlette Menendez, now 15, began acting out in school. Her grades also slipped, as did those of her sister, Siobhan. The eldest of the family’s five children, Sean Walsh, left for his first long tour at sea last year. Deena Menendez found herself obsessing over nautical weather reports.

Ed Menendez said his wife exhibits subtle signs of anxiety, too, when her sons are off on military duty.

“She tries to pull the other kids closer to her — she needs that comfort,” he said.“

“I saw my mother go through it,” said Ed Menendez, who grew up in upper Manhattan, and did not come home a single time when he was stationed in northern Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “And I see her go through it, especially when the oldest goes to sea.”

To be sure, there are government and nonprofit resources to help women who are the mothers or spouses of active duty soldiers or veterans.

But with no large military installation nearby to foster a sense of military-friendly community, Long Island women like Deena Menendez managing military families often say they feel as if almost none of their neighbors or colleagues truly understands what they are going through.

“I can talk to my husband about it, and social media is bigger now and helps,” she said. “But here, I don’t have neighbors or friends I can talk to who know what it’s like.”

The Menendez family plans to cheer Deena Menendez on this Mother’s Day. But her son, Scott Walsh, who was born on Mother’s Day, 1990, and served as a Bradley fighting vehicle mechanic at Ft. Stewart, Georgia, declined to specify how.

“It’s a surprise, so I can’t tell you,” he said, smiling over at his mother in the kitchen. “She’s sitting right here.”

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