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Sense of Community: 1st Lieutenant Stephanie Starkey on Serving An Ocean Away From Her Newborn Son

(Photo courtesy of Stephanie Starkey)

Today, Stephanie Starkey is in mom mode. She’s here at her three-year-old son Gavin’s day care to say hello and go for a walk.

[Sound:  Gavin talking]

Starkey is dressed in a crisply ironed blue button-up shirt, with tailored trousers, heels, and Ralph Lauren sunglasses.

But about four years ago, she was in camouflage and boots.

In times of peace, it’s the US Army’s policy that a soldier cannot be deployed less than six months after giving birth. 

“However, that can be shortened to four months in a time of war.  And so, it was my command’s decision to send me after the four months,” she said.

Starkey says looking back, she probably was in a bit of denial in the time leading up to her deployment to Iraq…hoping that somehow, something would keep her home with her newborn baby. That didn’t happen.

Before long, Starkey was breathing the stifling hot summer Iraqi air, at the US Base FOB Falcon, not too far from Baghdad.  There, she was a 1st Lieutenant maintenance control officer for the 7th squadron, 10th Cavalry.  She supervised the mechanics who were tuning up military vehicles, and she got used to hearing, “Yes, ma’am.”  

She also received and sent reports to the Army’s higher echelon.  Starkey helped orchestrate a large fleet exchange with other units of the military—Humvees for mine resistant vehicles, for example.

Her schedule was full.  But her mind and heart never left Springfield, where her infant son was growing each day.

“My husband really put in an effort to try to make sure that the baby said ‘Mama’ first.  So, he showed him pictures every day. And as he started to make more sounds, he encouraged him to say, ‘Ma-ma, Ma-ma, Ma-ma,’” she says.

She pulls up a video clip on her phone that her husband sent her when she was in Iraq.

[Sound:  Video of Starkey’s husband, “Can you say ‘Say Ma-ma?  Ma-ma?’” Baby sounds]

She signed up for phone service through Yahoo! Messenger, and called home every day to make sure he got to hear her voice. 

“I also made an audio recording of myself reading ‘Love You Forever,’ and my husband would play that for him every night when he put him to sleep,” she said.

Her husband kept sending videos for Gavin’s milestones in his first year.

“I like to look at the videos. That’s how I got to see when he first started to crawl, when he first discovered the ‘Johnny Jumper.’  Little things like that that would be caught on video,” she says.

The internet bandwidth where she was stationed wasn’t strong enough for video calls to stream well.  So, in order for her son to “see” her, she relied on pictures. Lots of pictures. 

“The picture that I keep hidden away but that I don’t actually look at was when I got my R & R. By this time, he had turned a year. And my family is there to meet me at the airport with him and he didn’t know who I was.  And so there’s a picture of him after he’s been handed to me, and he’s pushing me away,” she said.

It was devastating, she said.

“He was an infant, and he was a very attached infant, she said. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to fall asleep nursing and to wake up and I’m gone…and I don’t come back until he no longer remembers me,” she said.

Starkey says that her time in Iraq was an extended grieving process centered around longing for her baby. She says many people didn’t understand that—and felt that she should toughen up because her baby was being cared for.

Others, she said, came down on the opposite side—and wondered how in the world she could leave her baby behind.

“When a man leaves his family behind to do his service for his country, nobody thinks anything of it. When a woman has to do that, she’s shamed. She’s judged,” she said.

“I certainly can’t say that I have regrets, because everything that’s happened has brought me to where I am today, which is a good place.  But I do wonder what would be different if something hadn’t changed.  I wonder, are there any ways in which my son would be different, would be better, if I had never had to leave him,” she said.

Today, Starkey works as a counselor to veterans.  Her time in Iraq wasn’t her first deployment—she also served in Afghanistan.  

Join us Monday afternoon at 4:30 to hear more of her story, as our Sense of Community series continues.  I’m Jennifer Moore.