Active-duty military couples face unique challenges

LACEY - Kirk Johnson was a single parent during his wife Kimberly's 15-month deployment in Iraq.

Fort Lewis units

The family of four reunited this month, and then it will be Kimberly Johnson's turn to run the house solo during her husband's deployment.

The Johnsons are first sergeants in the Army, among about 10,000 couples nationwide enrolled in the Married Army Couples Program.

The couple met, married and had their first child, Amber, while stationed in Germany. Alexander was born four years later in Panama. Amber is 14 and Alexander is 10.

Before Iraq, neither parent was gone for more than a few months. Now the family must adjust to long separations and single parenting.

"It's not a single-parent household. It's just one parent can't be here right now," Kimberly Johnson said.

Back-to-back deployments are among the challenges unique to active duty couples.

Couples can request joint assignments. Others, like the Johnsons, prefer that their deployments aren't concurrent so one spouse can stay home with the children.

But there are no specific Army policies to address issues faced by married couples in uniform, and ultimately the "needs of the unit come first," said Lt. Col Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman.

The Johnsons cope with deployment by being open and honest with their children. But they also don't dwell on Kirk Johnson's impending departure.

"If you spend your last couple weeks moping, your last memories are sad," Kimberly Johnson said.

The back-to-back deployments mean Alexander and Amber must adjust to living under dad's rule, then switch to mom's style.

Kirk Johnson is the "authoritarian" who allocates daily chores.

"This isn't just a place to drop your stuff and explode. You have to pick up after yourself," said Johnson, who will retire when he returns, after 20 years in the service.

Their mother is more easy going.

"As long as they're being good, doing their studies," then she lets them be, she said.

There are also deeper adjustments.

This will be Kirk Johnson's second deployment to Iraq. His first was in 2004-05, and Alex was just learning to read.

The deployment set Alex back, and he started having behavioral problems, Kimberly Johnson said.

"A lot of it was emotional. He was sent to anger management a lot," she said.

Amber is a good student and handles the stress in a different way.

Kimberly Johnson's deployment came just as her daughter was reaching adolescence.

"She needed mom," Kirk Johnson said.

"I think I read her better than he does," his wife added.

The transition is also hard on the couple.

"It's strange being together only a few weeks. You go from the honeymoon stage right into the departure stage," Kirk Johnson said.

Staying connected

The family is trying to get the most out of the month they have together.

"We all chose not to deal with it 'til the time comes," Kimberly Johnson said.

When separated, they stay connected by communicating daily by phone or e-mail.

"As much as humanly possible, we try to contact each other daily," Kirk Johnson said.

The couple says they can relate to one another better because they have both experienced deployment.

"We come home and we talk about the military all night long. A lot of times sitting and talking with (Kimberly) will help me make a decision at work," Kirk said.

"When you get emotionally wrapped up, the other person can pull you back," his wife added.

They say that despite the hardships, their children's characters are stronger from the military life.

The siblings grew up all over the world, never living in one city for more than a few years.

While their friends only know other cultures through TV or books, Amber and Alexander have first-hand experiences, Kimberly Johnson said.

"Our children have had a lot of exposure. I think it's great," she said.

Diane Huber covers the city of Lacey for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-357-0204 or Reporter Christian Hill contributed to this report.