When Sharlet Lynn found out she had breast cancer last January, she was alone. Sitting in a hospital room in San Antonio, Texas, a doctor told her that she had ductal carcinoma, a fairly common and treatable type of breast cancer. The road ahead would require surgery, chemotherapy and a hefty bout of radiation. As devastating as the news was, Sharlet couldn't share the news with anyone just yet. Her husband was more than 7,000 miles away, having been deployed with the Army to Afghanistan for a full year. And she didn't think her teenage daughters, already struggling with their dad's absence, were ready to hear that their mom was seriously ill.
When the couple did talk a few days after the diagnosis, Sharlet, 52, and her husband Lt. Col. Chip Lynn, 44, wrestled with a question facing roughly 1,600 military families each year. What to do when one spouse is serving abroad and the one back home is faced with a life-threatening condition? The military makes some accommodations for unexpected situations on the home front, but some families say it's almost impossible to compensate for the absence of a spouse in times of real family crisis.
A long war-zone deployment is a trying psychological experience even without any complicating factors. A 2006 study from the University of Virginia found that more than 20 percent of all Iraqi veterans are diagnosed with psychological disorders, many with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Add to that the anxiety of being absent from a high-stakes health crisis back home, and the difficulties are unimaginable. "The fear abroad that you may lose a family member, or concern that you aren't there when they need you is enormously traumatic," says Col. Kathy Platoni, a psychologist with the Army. "Talk about a psychological overload of catastrophic stressors."
Meanwhile, on the home front, families are also in a war zone—trying not to worry too much and to keep the household functioning on their own. While PTSD is a condition the military normally uses only with the service members themselves, Platoni says that family members can be affected by similar symptoms, like anxiety disorders. The dark cycle of each spouse worrying about the condition of the other can lead to deeper and deeper depression, in some cases alienating the two from each other, which can exacerbate the PTSD symptoms upon a soldier's return. Chip says that being so far away, he sometimes felt emotionally removed from his family, not being there to help when he could tell they needed him.
The military does have a safety net to help families. The Department of Defense helps coordinate what they call Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) that consist of military families, volunteers and military officials to provide assistance on the home front. Officially, they lay the framework for communication among families in a particular unit, like drafting a phone tree to spread news, good or bad. But less structured is the community that FRGs create. With access to families in similar situations, military families often help one another with neighborly tasks, too, like coordinating errand runs or help finding a babysitter. Banding together is something you find often among military communities. "People come together in times of crisis or just to help each other out," says Platoni, "I've seen it happen in many resource groups."
In the face of a crisis like the one that the Lynns were facing, the obvious solution is to ask that the deployed member come home; aborting the national mission in order to enlist in a more personal one. The military has guidelines in place for such occasions, like when an accident occurs or a child is in immediate need of parental care. The policy states that since "most soldiers are mature and responsible individuals," emergency-leave requests can be "considered on their merits." In many cases, the Red Cross is called on to verify the need for a sudden trip home and to help with logistics. (The military declined to release statistics on how often this occurs.)
Chip requested leave in February, just a few weeks after Sharlet's diagnosis, but he didn't get the OK. The colonel above him who made the decision encouraged him instead to wait until April when he'd be eligible for the regular two-week leave that's granted to anyone who has been deployed for six months. Chip, a calm, quiet man seemingly out of place in a war zone, politely explained that his wife was fighting cancer, and that regular leave was for rest and relaxation, which there would be little of in going home to help care for Sharlet.
The request was denied again and Chip decided not to pursue it any higher. (A military spokesman wouldn't comment on the decision of a particular officer, but said that members of the military who need to take leave in extraordinary circumstances are usually granted it.)
Telling Sharlet he couldn't be with her for this ordeal was the hardest part for Chip. "He denied me," Chip explained in February when he managed to get a rare call through.
Sharlet stayed silent for a moment, "So you'll be here in April?" she asked him.
"It'll have to be April, then home for good in September," he said.
Aiming to let Chip know that she was staying strong, Sharlet answered carefully: "Just come home when you can."
With even a brief visit out of the question, there was no getting around the fact that during some of the toughest moments for Sharlet, like when she fought chemo nausea and her hair began to thin, she couldn't have her husband at her side or hear his voice. So the two created some unconventional ways to keep in touch. Phone access is sparse in battle areas and the military often filters and delays e-mail messages for security reasons. But they found a free Web site run by a nonprofit group called Caring Bridge which allows loved ones to connect during an illness.
Caring Bridge estimates that almost 10 percent of its 130,000 personalized pages were created by military spouses as a way to keep in touch with loved ones abroad. Founder Sona Mehring started the site in 1997 to help a friend communicate during premature-birth complications. "Helping people go through any type of health condition or crisis is very powerful," Mehring said. "The last thing they want to worry about is keeping in touch with everyone." One military family used the service to keep in touch during a full-term pregnancy. Another stayed connected while several members recovered from a car accident.
The site allows a family administrator to post photos and write journal entries and messages; visitors can leave thoughts by signing a guest book. Chip says this was the primary way he kept up with how Sharlet was doing. And Sharlet took great comfort in the community she created with her personalized portal, which had more than 2,500 visits from friends. "I am so thankful your surgery has gone well," one friend wrote in late January. Two months later when her hair began to fall out, another visitor joshed, "I LOVE the new do!!!" At one point when Sharlet was unable, her sister took the reins of the site. "Sharlet is home and doing well," she told the community. "She is not in pain and is in good spirits."
By the time Chip got back on leave in June, Sharlet had just finished her last radiation treatment, after a rigorous round of chemotherapy. "He and I were both bald," she joked.
The one thing Sharlet didn't have to worry about was health insurance. Military families say that the silver lining for them is that if they are hit by an illness, every dime of treatment is covered if patients seek treatment at approved hospitals and medical centers in their region.
Under the military's current time parameters, Chip is now loosely afforded two years at home after his one year in the field, though with the fight against terrorism ongoing and a new president about to assume office, he knows he's on call. For now, he's working with the Army based at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
With Christmas on its way, the Lynns say that they're grateful not to be facing a new year like the last. And with Sharlet's cancer in remission, she and Chip and their daughters have had some time to reflect on how waging simultaneous battles tested their family. Despite moments of strain early in the process, Sharlet says they came out of it stronger than before. "This was something bigger than any of us," she says. "And yeah it was hard, but it brought us a lot closer, which was a blessing."