Evansville, Ind. — Spc. Jessica Ellington, who will soon deploy to Iraq for up to 18 months, has tried to prepare her 2-year-old daughter, Brianna, for her impending absence.
"I told her that Mommy's going bye-bye for a long time," Ellington said. "Being gone a day is a long time for her, so she really doesn't understand."
To ease the transition, Ellington recorded her voice in a stuffed animal for Brianna to listen to at night.
Ellington, 21, has plenty of company as she juggles her dual roles as soldier and mother. Nearly 70 percent of the 60 soldiers in her Indiana National Guard detachment are women, reflecting a trend that has seen the number of women at war rise more than 700 percent since Vietnam.
Many are parents struggling with leaving their children behind.
Retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, who tracks military issues for the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, says it's difficult for any parent to go to war.
"You worry whoever is taking care of your child is doing well. You miss them every morning and night and day," Manning said.
But many soldiers say the guilt tends to weigh more heavily on women.
"Daddies go all the time. I understand there's a difference between a mother's role and a daddy's role, but people don't get heartbroken over daddies leaving, and that's important to a child's development, too," said Ellington, a nursing student who joined the National Guard at 17.
More than 60,000 women have been deployed overseas in support of the war in Iraq since December 2002. During the Vietnam War, about 7,000 women served, most as nurses.
Since the Pentagon relaxed enlistment restrictions in 1994, women have taken on more roles in medical, supply and other specialty units.
Ellington's unit, Detachment 1, Company A, 113th Support Battalion, 76th Brigade, was formed two years ago specifically for women interested in joining the National Guard.
The 113th has reported to Camp Atterbury, a mobilization station 30 miles south of Indianapolis. The soldiers know Iraq, where 18 female soldiers have died, is a likely destination.
Ellington hopes her tour of duty sends her daughter a message.
"Hopefully, what I do will set an example for her and her future that she can do whatever she wants to do if she sets her mind to it," Ellington said.