Single mom fights being dismissed from Air Force
By Kathleen Johnston and Kyung Lah
MILWAUKEE (CNN) — Rebecca Edmonds grew up a military kid and, like most military families, often moved as her dad rose through the ranks of the Navy.
Enamored with the military and her father’s service to his country, Edmonds decided in high school that military life was calling her.
“I think it’s definitely a tight-knit community, and I was willing to be a part of that,” Edmonds recalled of her decision to join the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, commonly called ROTC, at age 18.
“I think the families are welcomed. I remember going to a base, and we’d be welcomed by these families we didn’t even know. “
When the Air Force offered her a full scholarship to Marquette University, Edmonds jumped at the chance to become a nurse and serve her country. Marquette is a Catholic university, a perfect fit for the practicing Catholic.
Nothing captured her feeling of community and sense of military pride more than when her equally proud father, Capt. Tony Edmonds, swore in his oldest child as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
“It was very special,” she recalled of her commissioning in July 2011, shortly after college graduation. “I was so happy that (my parents) had an opportunity to come out and be a part of that ceremony and have him administer the oath of office to me as an active-duty officer.”
Today, her dream of serving her country has been shattered.
Weeks before being commissioned as a military officer, Edmonds discovered that she was pregnant.
That was before she says she learned the Air Force forbid single parents from enlisting. The reason for the policy, according to Air Force officials, is that the demands of deployment and military service put strain on family life and even more so for single parents.
The Air Force accused Edmonds of committing fraud, ejected her from its ranks and revoked her $92,000 scholarship. Her case is currently under review.
Edmonds’ mother, Karen, a military wife for 25 years, said deployments are tough on all service members and their families, married or not. If her daughter were to deploy, Karen Edmonds said, her grandson would be well cared for by an extended family that includes the child’s father and both sets of grandparents.
Edmonds’ mother said she believes the policy discriminates against single women and encourages pregnant single women to abort their pregnancies.
“The Air Force is making an assumption that single parents cannot provide adequately for their children if deployed,” Edmonds’ mother said. “That’s what burns me up.”
After she was “dis-enrolled” from the Air Force — the military term for the separation from service — Edmonds appealed to the Air Force and her congressman, Rep. Paul Ryan, now the Republican nominee for vice president. The Air Force rejected her initial appeal but said this week that her case is now being reviewed at the highest levels. Edmonds has also hired a military attorney, Daniel Conway.
Edmonds, her family and her attorney claim that the Air Force is encouraging its members to give up their children, through either adoption or abortion, a position they say was revealed in a comment from an Air Force colonel.
In a letter responding to Ryan’s inquiry on Edmonds’ case, Col. Kelly L. Goggins wrote, “If Ms. Edmonds had reported her pregnancy she would have been placed on medical recheck status until she gave birth. At that time she would have been been able to commission if she were not a single parent, for example, if she were married, or had given the child up for adoption.”
CNN has repeatedly asked to interview Goggins, to no avail.
Edmonds said that letter confirms her fear at the time she discovered she was pregnant.
She had just found out that she was expecting when she had what would be one of her final counseling sessions with an officer, as required by the Air Force ROTC.
“He just says, ‘I don’t know what would happen to a cadet if she were to become pregnant. But I don’t think it would be good. So just don’t get pregnant,’ ” Edmonds recalled of the conversation with the officer. “He said that word for word to me. At that point, I thought, ‘OK, I don’t think I have to tell anybody this. I’m scared now.’ “
Edmonds completed all her physical and academic requirements, telling only her boyfriend and her family of her pregnancy. Abortion was never an option, she said, because of her Catholic faith and her personal beliefs.
Thirteen weeks into her pregnancy, she was sworn in by her father as a second lieutenant and started making plans to go to Virginia to begin her military service. Nearly six months into her pregnancy, she said, she told her new commanders that she was going to have a child, and they told her they didn’t think it would be a problem.
But they were wrong. Citing a contract she signed in 2007 when she enrolled in ROTC at age 18, the Air Force said she committed a fraud by not reporting a change in her medical condition, as indicated in the contract.
The Air Force ejected her, noting in its ruling, “It is not the responsibility of the staff to constantly remind you of the terms of your contract.”
It further stated that her file contained eight forms in which she was briefed on the medical change reporting requirement. Edmonds said no one ever brought the issue up during her subsequent counseling sessions while she was enrolled at Marquette.
Edmonds said she asked the officer who informed her that she was being ejected from the Air Force, “Had I terminated the pregnancy before my commissioning, would I have been able to commission at that point?” And, according to Edmonds, “He said, ‘Well. Technically, yes.’ That was the hardest part of all of this. Someone telling me to my face that had I gotten an abortion, then I would be eligible for service.”
In a statement to CNN, a spokesman for the Air Force said it had no knowledge of that conversation.
“Any such counseling would have been inappropriate and I have seen no evidence of any such discussion,” Maj. Joel Harper wrote. “However, Ms. Edmonds’ case is under review by the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records.”
Harper also said the Air Force would never tell non-married service members to give up their children, despite Goggins’ letter to Ryan.
“The assertion that the Air Force would in any way encourage single parents to give up their children is unfounded,” he wrote.
The Edmondses and their attorney feels otherwise.
“This offends me on a number of different levels,” said Conway, the attorney. “Because we’re telling young single woman that they cannot serve if they have a child. That they have to get married, give the baby up or have an abortion.”
Edmonds said she realizes there will be those who say she shouldn’t have gotten pregnant or have gone public with her story. She said that she may have made a mistake but that she now has a beautiful 10-month old son, Dominic, to show for it and he is no mistake. She is taking responsibility for her actions and raising her child.
She hopes that because she has told her story, the military will reconsider its policy on single parents being allowed to enlist.
As she waits for her situation to be resolved, Edmonds is working as a pediatric nurse, paying $100 a month — with interest — toward the $92,000 scholarship debt.
After all, Karen Edmonds points out, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently stated his commitment “to removing all the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country” when hailing last year’s decision to abandon the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay men and women serving in the military.
She hopes his words will apply to women like her daughter.
“I believe a woman has the right to choose life, go on to serve and reach (her) full potential, including being an officer in the Air Force,” Karen Edmonds said.