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Family needs keep military families apart

Laura Brennan and her Marine husband, Col. James

Laura Brennan and her Marine husband, Col. James Brennan, rely on Skype video to stay in touch. His wife and children, 6-year-old Charlotte, left, and Caroline, moved to West Islip because special services their twin autistic daughters need were unavailable at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Brennan assumed command of a Marine battalion four years ago. He is now stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. (March 6, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Marine Col. James Brennan hardly ever gets to tuck his kids in bed or kiss his wife good night.

It's not that Brennan, 46, is off at war; his last deployment was to Iraq in 2009.

Rather, Brennan's wife and children moved to West Islip because special services their twin autistic daughters need were unavailable at the giant military base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Brennan assumed command of a Marine battalion four years ago.

"We were told the military could not support the medical needs of my children, so he had to make a career choice," said Brennan's wife, Laura Brennan.

"We made the choice we thought was best for everybody when I stayed with the kids where they could have their services, medical and educational, met and he could move on with his career," she added.

Although military families are forced to temporarily separate to accommodate wartime deployments, the Brennans are among military families that have chosen to live apart to accommodate the special needs of family members. The family's story is another chapter in the saga of how military families cope, at war and at home, during a time of war.

Their 6-year-old twin daughters, Caroline and Charlotte, both exhibit degrees of autism. Caroline's affliction is more pervasive. She has been beset by serious developmental delays since her premature birth was complicated by a loss of oxygen to her brain.

But school districts at Lejeune and in the city of Alexandria, Va., where the family moved after James Brennan was transferred from Lejeune to Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, did not offer the level of services available in Laura Brennan's West Islip hometown.

So the Brennans decided that Laura and the children would move back to Long Island, where the West Islip school district provides Caroline with in-home tutoring, plus in-school speech and physical therapies. Jim Brennan stayed behind and lives in a friend's basement.

'Geographic bachelors'

The demands of military life -- which can include multiple combat tours, lengthy training assignments, isolating specialties such as submarine duty, and deployments to bases in Japan, Germany or parts of the American South and West -- force large numbers of families to decide whether to uproot spouses and children or to live apart for months or even years.

The practice has become so common that the phrase "geographic bachelors" is casually used among the military to describe married troops who live away from home, said Kathleen Moakler, a lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.-based National Military Family Association advocacy organization.

"We've seen it more with the repeated deployments," Moakler said.

Moakler said within a single four-year enlistment a new Marine might complete boot camp in South Carolina, go for specialty training in Southern California, serve two combat deployments in southwest Asia and be assigned to a base in Hawaii. Advancing career soldiers typically transfer from post to post as command assignments become available.

But geographic uncertainty places a burden on families who depend on school systems or programs for their special-needs children. Laura Brennan, whose children have lived in three states in six years, said she had to reapply for services for her children every time she moved. In Virginia, she tussled with the Alexandria school district when it offered fewer services than a pediatrician said her daughter needed.

Fear move to next post

Moakler said this uncertainty often persuades families who have found services their children need to keep them there, rather than risk not being able to replace them at a new location.

"You're never sure what programs you're going to find at the next post," Moakler said. "So they may choose to stay where they can find the services they need."

These and other pressures on military families have persuaded Pentagon leaders to find ways of keeping families physically together, said Kathy Broniarczyk of Purdue University's Military Family Research Institute.

Broniarczyk, whose husband is a career soldier, said the Pentagon has made it easier for troops stationed overseas to bring spouses and kids. The military has also made bases in the United States more family-friendly, Broniarczyk said, by boosting programs for children and teens, developing "family readiness" networks, shortening combat tours, and increasing the time back home before troops are sent back to war.

The military also provides as much as $36,000 per patient per year through its ECHO program to allow families like the Brennans to purchase medical or disability care not fully covered by the military's TRICARE health maintenance organization network.

But for now, at least, the Brennans are resigned to a life lived mostly apart.

James Brennan speaks to his children most nights via Skype video, chatting with them about art projects and assuring them he will see them soon. He makes the 300-mile drive from Virginia about every other Friday night, then heads back Sunday after the girls are in bed.

But it's hard.

Caroline, whose autism until recently mostly kept her from reacting to her father's absence, has begun to notice.

"When she wakes up on the mornings he leaves, she runs to the window to see if his car is still in the driveway," Laura Brennan said. "She's sad. She'll say, 'Daddy's gone.' "

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