A tough day for military mothers

Like millions of children, Ryan and Melina Burnah of Waterford will reach out today to express appre
Warrant Officer Priscilla Burnah of Waterford is pictured in Afghanistan.
Warrant Officer Priscilla Burnah of Waterford is pictured in Afghanistan.

Like millions of children, Ryan and Melina Burnah of Waterford will reach out today to express appreciation to their mom.

Both Ryan, 18, and Melina, 6, will send e-mails from the home computer, and Ryan will check whether the card be bought last Monday at Target arrived in time.

Maybe not. It had a long way to go.

Their mother, New York National Guard Warrant Officer Priscilla Burnah, is in Afghanistan.

Burnah is just one mother spending the holiday dedicated to them — when flowers, cards, brunches and phone calls await most moms — on active military duty, thousands of miles from their children.

“It’s going to be lonely. It’s the one day dedicated to me, and I’m not there,” said Burnah, 40, a single mother on her first overseas deployment.

Of the 82.8 million mothers in the United States, millions will have to work outside the home today — selling flowers, cards and jewelry, waitressing, etc. But thousands work in the military, bringing special challenges to parenting.

Burnah is with the Guard’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, currently assigned to Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, part of a NATO team training the Afghan security forces and police. She works in the unit’s personnel office.

A full-time employee at the National Guard headquarters in Latham, Burnah said her children are aware of the sacrifices of a military career. “There were 18-hour days back home, too,” she said.

Her mother, Judith Sorrell-Lynch, was a nurse in the Guard back when it still meant “one weekend a month and two weeks a year,” retiring in 2002 with the rank of major. She has moved down from her home in the Plattsburgh area to care for the children while Burnah is deployed.

And despite a half-world of distance, Burnah has been able to stay in regular touch with Ryan and Melina since arriving in Kabul in late March.

Lots of e-mails

“We e-mail each day. We send photos back and forth. We talk on the phone. For the most part, we stay in pretty good touch,” she said.

Still, it’s not the same as being home. On Saturday she was going to miss Ryan’s graduation from LaSalle Institute in Troy, as was his father, also in the military, who is in Iraq.

“I try to keep myself busy. Mom and Dad can’t make it, but I’ll have other relatives there,” Ryan Burnah said last week.

His mother is among 1,700 members of the New York National Guard now in Afghanistan, as part of the state Guard’s largest-ever single-purpose call-up, said Eric Durr, a spokesman at the Guard’s Latham headquarters.

Of 10,000 people in the New York National Guard, Durr said there are 1,422 women, and 146 of them have children young enough to be claimed as dependents. He couldn’t say how many of those women are currently deployed.

Nationwide, there are roughly 200,000 women serving in the active duty military, though the number who are mothers is unavailable. A National Public Radio report last year estimated there were then 10,000 military mothers serving in Iraq.

The local soldiers were called to active duty in late January, and went to Afghanistan after two months of training at Fort Bragg, N.C. They will be away through next January or February, Durr said.

‘not a big deal’

Another mother, Capt. Lynn Currier of Malta, arrived in Afghanistan right around the time her 24-year-old twin daughters, Nancy and Naida, were returning from a National Guard tour in Iraq. She also has a 12-year-old son, Brandon, who is in seventh grade at Ballston Spa Middle School.

She and Brandon e-mail back and forth daily, though the 8-1⁄2-hour time difference means the note she sends in the afternoon reaches Brandon as he’s leaving for school the next morning. She also gets e-mail updates from his teachers that allow her to keep up top of his homework assignments.

Her mother has also moved in, from Vermont, to care for Brandon, Currier said. “I’m not sure I could have the calm, cool demeanor I have if I didn’t know he was being well taken care of.”

Currier, 44, is a 23-year veteran of the military who expects to spend Mother’s Day working at her job with the provost marshal, the military police chief. “It’s not a big deal,” she said. “Honestly, in 23 years I’ve missed a lot of different things, so I don’t think much about it. It would bother me more to miss his birthday.”

Currier has already made plans to take her 14-day leave to be home for Brandon’s birthday in July.

Back here, Currier was the full-time state education officer for the New York Guard. When she misses her son now, she reminds herself that for the past six years her job has allowed her to take Brandon with her on weekends as she traveled around the state to meet with soldiers.

more stress

Brandon said he doesn’t miss his mom too much. He mailed a Mother’s Day card a week in advance, and will exchange e-mails with her today.

“I’m kind of used to it because my sisters have been deployed twice,” he said. “I try to think positively.”

Currier said she knows other parents and even grandparents serving in the National Guard.

In general, there’s a consensus that in today’s military, both men and women are more likely to be married and have children than in the past — and that’s especially true of National Guard units, most of whose members were in civilian life until getting activated.

“There’s no question that the Guard tends to be a little older,” said Lt. Col. Paul A. Fanning, a public affairs officer currently part of the Afghanistan deployment.

Burnah’s mother, Sorrell-Lynch, said her daughter’s deployment has been harder to deal with than when her son, who is in the regular Army, was in Iraq.

“He doesn’t have children,” she said. “This has been more stressful. I guess with the children, I’m reminded all the time that she’s over there.”

helping children

Ryan and Melina are active in humanitarian causes suggested by their mother. Melina’s first-grade class at Shatekon Elementary School in Clifton Park is organizing to collect pencils, paper, toys and school supplies for distribution to children in Afghanistan. Ryan’s school is getting involved in similar efforts.

“A lot of these kids have nothing,” Priscilla Burnah said by phone from Kabul last week. “You’d have to see their faces to see how much a stuffed animal can mean to them.”

Despite knowing about the time away from family, Ryan Burnah also plans a military career. He’s cadet captain of the LaSalle Institute ROTC, and plans to pursue flight medic training with the 109th Air National Guard in Scotia while he takes pre-med courses at the University at Albany this fall.

“I tell [my mom] all the time that I’m proud of what she’s doing. I grew up with her. She was always doing things for me. It’s tough, having her away. I can’t put it any other way,” he said quietly.

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