She had raised her daughter for six years following the divorce, shuttling to soccer practice and cheerleading, making sure schoolwork was done. Then Lt. Eva Crouch was mobilized with the Kentucky National Guard, and Sara went to stay with Dad.
A year and a half later, her assignment up, Crouch pulled into her driveway with one thing in mind - bringing home the little girl who shared her smile and blue eyes. She dialed her ex and said she'd be there the next day to pick Sara up, but his response sent her reeling.
"Not without a court order you won't."
Within a month, a judge would decide that Sara should stay with her dad. It was, he said, in "the best interests of the child."
What happened? Crouch was the legal residential caretaker; this was only supposed to be temporary. What had changed? She wasn't a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or an abusive mother.
Her only misstep, it seems, was answering the call to serve her country.
Crouch and an unknown number of others among the 140,000-plus single parents in uniform fight a war on two fronts: For the nation they are sworn to defend, and for the children they are losing because of that duty.
A federal law called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is meant to protect them by staying civil court actions and administrative proceedings during military activation. They can't be evicted. Creditors can't seize their property. Civilian health benefits, if suspended during deployment, must be reinstated.
And yet service members' children can be - and are being - taken from them after they are deployed.
Some family court judges say that determining what's best for a child in a custody case is simply not comparable to deciding civil property disputes and the like; they have ruled that family law trumps the federal law protecting servicemembers.
Even some supporters of the federal law say it should be changed - that soldiers should be assured that they can regain custody of children.
Military mothers and fathers speak of birthdays missed, bonds weakened, endless hearings. They are people like Marine Cpl. Levi Bradley, helping to fight the insurgency in Fallujah, Iraq, at the same time he battles for custody of his son in a Kansas family court.
Like Sgt. Mike Grantham of the Iowa National Guard, whose two kids lived with him until he was mobilized to train troops after 9/11.
Like Army Reserve Capt. Brad Carlson, fighting for custody of his American-born children after his marriage crumbled while he was deployed and his European wife refused to return to the States. And like Eva Crouch, who spent two years and some $25,000 pushing her case through the Kentucky courts.
"I'd have spent a million," she says. "My child was my life ... I go serve my country, and I come back and have to go through hell and high water."
In 1943, during World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the soldiers' relief law should be "liberally construed to protect those who have been obliged to drop their own affairs to take up the burdens of the nation."
Shielding soldiers allows them "to devote their entire energy" to the nation's defense, the law itself states.
But child custody cases are different.
"The minute these guys are getting deployed, the other parent is going, â€˜I can do whatever I want now,'" says Jean Ann Uvodich, an attorney who represented Bradley.
Bradley had already joined the Marines, and his wife, Amber, was a junior in high school when their son Tyler came along in 2003. With Bradley in training, Amber and the baby lived with Bradley's mother, Starleen, in Ottawa, Kan.
When the marriage fell apart two years later, Bradley filed for divorce and Amber signed a parenting plan granting him sole custody and agreeing that Tyler would live with Starleen while Bradley was on duty.
In August 2005, Bradley deployed to Iraq. A month later, Amber sought residential custody of Tyler. She didn't fully understand what she had signed, she said.
Bradley learned of the petition in Fallujah. He worked during the day as a mechanic, then at night called his mother to hear the latest from court.
"My mind wasn't where it was supposed to be," he says. And the distraction cost him. One day he rolled a Humvee he was test-driving. Though uninjured, Bradley was reprimanded.
Uvodich sought a stay under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, arguing Bradley had a right to be present to testify.
But the judge said he didn't believe the case was subject to the federal law because "this Court has a continuing obligation to consider what's in the best interest of the child."
The judge awarded temporary physical custody to Amber. Last summer, that order was made permanent.
Bradley, now 22, is stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., awaiting his second deployment to Iraq. He gets to Kansas on leave, seeing Tyler for four days at a time.
"The act states: Everything will be put on hold until I'm able to get back. It doesn't happen," he says. "I found out the hard way."
Dale Koch, president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said that as state court judges, those deciding custody cases are obligated to follow their family codes - and "in most states there is language that says the primary interest is the best interest of the child."
"We recognize the competing interests," says Koch, an Oregon judge. "You don't want to penalize a parent because they've served their country. On the other hand ... you don't want to penalize the child."
But what does "best interest" really mean? Koch mentions factors such as stability and considering who has been the child's main emotional provider, parameters that conflict directly with military service.
Iowa Guardsman Mike Grantham thought he was serving the best interests of his children when he arranged for his son and daughter to stay with his mother before reporting for duty in 2002. He had raised Brianna and Jeremy since his 2000 divorce, when ex-wife Tammara turned physical custody over to him.
After mobilizing, Grantham was served with a custody petition from Tammara. A trial judge temporarily placed the children with her. A year later, though Grantham had returned, the judge made Tammara the primary physical custodian.
An appeals court sided with Grantham, saying: "A soldier, who answered our Nation's call to defend, lost physical care of his children ... offending our intrinsic sense of right and wrong."
But the Iowa Supreme Court disagreed, saying Tammara was "presently the most effective parent."
Now, Grantham says, his visitation rights mirror those that his ex-wife once had: every other weekend, Wednesdays, and certain holidays - Father's Day, for example.
"Being deployed, you lose your armor," he says. Military and family law experts don't know how big the problem is, but 5.4 percent of active duty members - more than 74,000 - are single parents, the Department of Defense reports. More than 68,000 Guard and reserve members are also single parents. Divorce among service personnel is rising.
Army reservist Brad Carlson lived in Phoenix with his wife, Bianca, and three kids before deploying to Kuwait in 2003. A year later, his wife indicated she wanted to end the marriage and remain in Luxembourg, where she had moved the family and where her parents lived. Carlson filed for divorce in Arizona, and later invoked the Servicemembers Act, but in vain. A Luxembourg court awarded custody to Bianca. "I feel really betrayed," Carlson says. The solution, some say, lies in amending the federal law to specify that it does apply in custody cases. Some states aren't waiting for congressional action.
In 2005, California enacted a law saying a parent's absence due to military activation cannot be used to justify permanent changes in custody or visitation. Michigan and Kentucky followed suit, requiring that temporary changes made because of deployment revert back to the original agreement once deployment ends.
Similar legislation has been proposed in Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and North Carolina.
When Crouch was mobilized back in 2003, her ex-husband, Charles, wanted 9-year-old Sara with him. They drew up a temporary order, moved Sara's belongings, and Crouch headed out - to Iraq, she thought, although she wound up at Fort Knox. The fortunate assignment allowed her to visit Sara most weekends.
But when the time came for Sara to return to her mom, Charles says his daughter expressed a desire to stay with him. She liked her school, had made new friends.
"I had no intention of trying to talk her into staying," he says. "All I wanted was what was best for my daughter."
Last year, the state Supreme Court cited Kentucky's new law in overturning the trial judge's decision granting custody to Charles. Last September, Eva Crouch got Sara back.
Remarried now, Crouch is expecting another baby this August. But with 18 years in the military, she knows she could be mobilized again. One thing is clear to her now: Serving her country isn't worth losing her daughter.
"I can't leave my child again."
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