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Reservist faces a tug-of-war

Nurse pulled in different directions by duty, motherhood

By Peggy Peck
MedPage Today Senior Editor

Editor's note: CNN.com has a business partnership with MedPageToday.com, which provides custom health content.

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Kathleen Whitney's hospital unit operates behind the lines and receives casualties from field units.
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FORT WORTH, Texas (MedPage Today) -- The bomb-scarred terrain of Iraq casts its shadow on the well-tended garden of 32-year-old Kathleen Whitney's Texas home.

As Whitney -- mother, nurse and soldier -- surveys her mannered garden, she is trying to resolve the conflicting needs of American soldiers wounded by roadside bombs and the undeniable needs of the 2-year-old son she holds in her arms.

Whitney, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, is torn by an unexpected turn of events and is stretched to the limit by seemingly incompatible loyalties -- all set off by a letter from the Army that arrived in December.

Her finely honed commitment to honor, duty and patriotism is being matched against her equally strong instincts of motherhood and family. At the same time, she has deep feelings of disillusionment with the Army, to which she owes so much allegiance and gratitude, for changing the rules.

Tucked among a barrage of Christmas cards and catalogs, the official letter notified Whitney that the Army had a new set of circumstances that affected her life and status.

She was no longer, as she had been, a lieutenant in the Army's Individual Ready Reserve, or IRR. That status was being changed. She had become a lieutenant in the Army's active reserve. Translation: With just 72 hours' notice, she could be headed overseas. Her previous motherhood exemption was no longer in effect.

A spokesman at the Army's Human Resources Center in St. Louis, Missouri, said that while he couldn't comment on a particular situation, Whitney's job as a nurse puts her in a "critical shortage category," explaining why her status was changed.

This was a jolt. When Whitney joined the Army Reserves, she was willing and eager to go where the Army sent her. But for nine years, the Army sent her no farther than San Antonio for two weeks each summer.

The Army was very good to her for those nine years. It paid her college tuition, enabling her to become an emergency room nurse, a job she loves.

Moreover, the Army told her that when she wanted to start a family, it would respect her choice and allow her to move to Individual Ready Reserve so that she could devote herself to that family.

But after the arrival of the letter at Christmas, Whitney's world began to splinter.

The Army, she says, is likely to come between her and Matthew, the squirming youngster she holds in her arms. That Whitney's story is being essentially repeated by other reservists all over the country makes it no easier for her to accept.

"This was not what I was told when I enlisted," Whitney says. "I felt like I had given nine good years during which I was ready and willing to go anywhere they sent me," she says. "Now, when I had a baby that I had to be responsible for, now I was going to sent somewhere. At first I felt really angry and trapped. The only way that I could get out was by a medical discharge or a dishonorable discharge. Neither was an option for me."

In 1993, she signed up to serve six months' active duty and six years in the active reserves, giving up one weekend a month and two weeks each summer --in exchange for money for college. By the time, she was pregnant and asked to be transferred to Individual Ready Reserve, she had racked up nine years' active reserve service.

In the Army now

"I went through basic training in South Carolina at Fort Jackson and then went to Fort Gordon in Georgia, where I was first assigned to a communications support unit," she said. "But then the Army decided that it wanted me to be a medical supply specialist."

Her job, ordering and stocking medical supplies, was her first introduction to medicine, but it had nothing to do with her decision to seek a career in nursing.

"What really got me interested in medicine was that I wanted to be a writer, and I was looking for something that I could do to make money and still have time to write," she said.

When she returned home to Fort Worth after six months of active duty, she joined a local writers' workshop.

"I was the youngest one in the group, and a lot of the people already had careers in writing," she says. "They would give me advice about the kind of job that I should get so that I could have time to write. They told me, 'You should get one of those medical jobs where you work three days a week for 12-hour shifts, and you have the rest of the week off.' "

Among her choices, nursing sounded the most interesting -- specifically ER nursing, a surprising choice because her writing group mentors had a caveat about medicine -- to avoid nursing "because nurses work way too hard."

A job that's never boring

Four years later -- punctuated by monthly weekend drills and two weeks training every summer with her Reserve unit -- Whitney received her bachelor of science in nursing degree.

Two months later, in August 1997, she was married. She spent a year as a medical-surgical nurse, working the orthopedic floor, before finding a job in the emergency department at Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth.

"I love my job," she says. "It is never boring, always challenging."

The downside, she says, is that she really hasn't "had time to write, but maybe I just wasn't cut out to be the next John Steinbeck -- yet."

As much as she loves nursing, it wasn't until 1999 that she decided to use her nursing degree to change her status in the Reserves. That year she extended her active reserve commitment for two years and applied for officer's candidate school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. But she also decided to get serious about starting a family.

The Army assigned her to a general hospital unit, which is a support unit that operates behind combat lines and receives casualties from field units, she says.

"I stayed there until September 11, 2001," she says. "After September 11, I knew something was going to happen. Units would be called up, and I wanted to be there, so I transferred to a forward combat support unit. I wanted to be where I could do the most good. I knew that working ER in an inner-city hospital I had probably already seen more trauma than most other Army Reserve nurses see. I decided I should be at the front."

And her decision, she says, was tempered by a gnawing doubt about her plans for a family. She had been seeing a fertility specialist and had undergone a number of unsuccessful treatments.

She trained with her new unit through the remainder of 2001 and into the summer of 2002.

"We were a really gung-ho unit," she says. "In July, we were doing our two-week training in San Antonio. It was 100 degrees every day. We were doing drills in the morning and in the late afternoon to avoid the heat of the day. At midday, the other units would be in their tents trying to stay out of the sun, and my unit would be out playing flag football."

But when she returned from those two weeks, she was exhausted. "I just slept and slept." The exhaustion didn't go away, and in August, "I took a pregnancy test, and it came back positive."

"I had been told all along that when I got pregnant I could simply apply to the IRR," Whitney says.

That's what she did in February 2003. On March 15, her unit shipped out to Baghdad, and on March 31, 2003, her son was born.

Six weeks later, Whitney was back at work in the ER, and her mother, Brigid Keller, was taking care of little Matthew. Whitney's husband, Joe, who runs a car repossession business, shares the child-care tasks on weekends.

In the Army -- again

That work-home-baby routine continued undisturbed until December with the "letter from the Army telling me that I wasn't going to be in the IRR anymore. There isn't any IRR anymore."

Whitney and tens of thousands of reservists around the country were finding out that the Army had instituted a stop-loss provision. The Army was freezing reservists in place, allowing no resignations and no voluntary transfers to inactive status.

Her initial anger was soon crowded out by worry. How, she frets, can she leave Matthew? If she were sent overseas, "Mom would have to take over with Matthew full time since Joe works 16-hour days. He isn't available."

Whitney's two younger sisters are in graduate school -- one at the University of Notre Dame and the other at the University of Missouri -- and she says that both have offered to help, "but that just isn't practical."

As Whitney talks about the impact on her family, a trace of anger returns to her voice.

"This isn't just my life that is being disrupted; it is the whole family," she says. "Everyone in the family is upset and worried."

But just as quickly as the anger appears, it dissipates, and she points out that her situation isn't unique.

"Lots of other families are facing these same problems, so I don't want to sound like a complainer," she said. "I was never one of those people who signed up with the Reserves and then didn't expect to be called up. I was ready for this, for nine years. I just found it a lot easier to go along with the Army when my participation was voluntary."

Almost six months have passed since Whitney received the letter that changed her life. During the intervening time, she has learned that while it is unlikely she will be sent to Iraq, it is likely that she will be sent to the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany.

"That's the hospital where they send all the wounded," she says.

Part of her unit was rotated there this spring. Another group is to go there in December , and that is when Whitney expects that she will be sent.

This, however, is the Army, and that means "nothing is definite," she says.

"Call-up could come at any time," she said. "It could be as short as 72 hours' notice, although the rotations lately have had more notice than that."

If the call comes, she'll be gone for a year. Right now, that's half of her son's life.

"I'm just worried that when I leave Matthew will feel abandoned because his mom just disappeared. I worry that my absence will affect our bonding," Whitney says.

She has plans to compensate: She will communicate regularly by e-mail and phone, and she is making videos of herself reading Matthew's favorite books --electronic substitutes for goodnight hugs and good morning kisses.

But "I worry that he won't understand when he wakes up and I'm not here," she says.

That, however, is tomorrow. Today, she holds Matthew a little tighter.


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