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When Spc. Alexis Hutchinson's airplane left Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., for Afghanistan on Nov. 5, she was not on board.
The 21-year-old single mom stayed home because she had no one to care for her 10-month-old son. Her mother in Oakland, Calif., initially took the boy in but became "overwhelmed" and refused to keep him for the deployment.
Hutchinson is one of thousands of single mothers who have faced the order to leave a child home and go to war. But she refused to deploy.
Hutchinson, an Army cook assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, was arrested the day after she skipped her flight. She is confined to Fort Stewart, Ga., hoping for a discharge instead of a court-martial.
In the past two years, more than 3,000 people have been discharged — voluntarily or involuntarily — for pregnancy or lack of a family care plan, the Army says.
Hutchinson's "is a perfect case, exactly why the Army has an administrative discharge due to parenthood," said her attorney, Rai Sue Sussman. "There must be other people being placed in this horrible predicament: 'I don't want to disobey orders, but I don't want to abandon my child.' "
Hutchinson's mother, Angelique Hughes, 41, said she — not her daughter — is to blame, because she backed out of caring for her grandson. Hughes said she already cares for her own mother, a daughter with special needs, an ailing sister and 14 children through her home child care business.
Without her mother's help, Hutchinson maintains, she is the only one available to care for her son, Kamani.
After Hutchinson was arrested, Hughes left her Oakland home for Fort Stewart and, on Nov. 9, took back her grandson.
Hutchinson was not available for comment.
The Army said Hutchinson knew her deployment date for months and that she'd already gotten one 30-day extension.
Thousands do duty
"There are thousands of single parents and dual military families where mom and dad are soldiers in similar predicaments," said Army spokesman Kevin Larson, of Fort Stewart. "They have to have that family care plan, they have the time to set it up, and then they go forth and do their duty to their country and their comrades."
Although the Army does not allow single parents to enlist, there are 37,000 single parents on active duty. According to the Army, 8,300 single parents are currently deployed. About 1,800 are single mothers.
Legal experts said the Army tends to accommodate family needs, to a point. And most single-parent soldiers tend to tough it out.
"The real issue here is that military members want to be parents, and it's not only mothers," said Patricia Apy, chair of the American Bar Association's Family Law Military Committee. "The fact is a lot of moms and dads get on those planes going, 'This sucks,' but the bottom line is that's their job"
Sussman said the solution is written into the regulations. "The Army has a regulation when single parents' family care plans fail, and the command is able to administratively discharge soldiers, because their duties of parenthood are interfering with their duties to the Army," she said.
Hutchinson's mother said she backed out because she hadn't anticipated the strain of caring for an infant. "I said, 'I'm overwhelmed and I don't know what to do,' " Hughes said. "It was my decision. As far as she was concerned, she had her family care plan intact."
Hutchinson became pregnant after basic training.
"The dad's name is not even on the birth certificate," Hughes said. "The dad did not want to take responsibility after the birth of the baby. He hasn't spent any time with the baby or bought anything for the baby, so I'm going to guess he's an absentee father like most of the world."
Sussman said Hutchinson was told " 'You have to get on that plane,' and she wasn't provided with any counseling as to what one does when they are the sole provider of a 10-month-old infant. They knew that her family care plan wasn't complete and that it wasn't OK for her to deploy without a family care plan."
Hutchinson was in touch with her command, and she returned to the post the day after the deployment flight.
"She was extremely scared," Sussman said.
Larson said, "The allegations against Spc. Hutchinson include alleged violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
Foster care option
Sussman said the Army had suggested the baby enter foster care and threatened to ship Hutchinson to Afghanistan for a court-martial.
"When I look at other cases, where they're choosing not to court-martial people, I really wonder why punishing this single mother is in the best interest of the Army," Sussman said.
Hughes said the entire thing has been "mentally distressing" for both her and her daughter.
"I'm stressed to the point where I don't want to deal with it anymore," she said. "I just want her to get out."
Hughes said that she and her daughter communicate regularly and that her daughter is worried.
"I'm scared she's going to snap and do something crazy to herself," Hughes said.
Mark Sullivan, retired Army Reserve JAG colonel and author of "The Military Divorce Handbook," said he wonders whether experts said it seemed the baby's father has been dismissed too quickly.
"She can't find any friends to care for the baby; she can't find any relatives?" Sullivan asked. "Excuse me, has she contacted the dad? If he's not in prison, not convicted of child abuse, if he's not unlocatable because it was an overnight affair, I'm concerned she hasn't done the right searching."
Apy said that foster care would be an acceptable option in a civilian case if neither parent was viable and that there's no reason it is not acceptable here.
"There are a lot of amazing foster parents in this country who care for children placed with them," Apy said.
"A number of them have taken in children around military bases — that's not an unusual circumstance within the military community," she said.