While he was deployed in Afghanistan, a U.S. Navy Seal wrote a lullaby for his son Sean, whom he calls "SS."
The song opens:
Rock a bye SS/ ROCK Rock a Bye/ you sang to me each eve/ And you gave me rolling rock a byes of dreams I've yet to dream.
Each night I'd pray that when I'd awake/ You'd have safely ROCK'd me home to the greatest gift, the Lord hath given me/ my little son named Sean.
Sean may never hear that lullaby again, not because his father Gary died but because Sean’s mother relocated him to Israel. She visited family there during one of Gary’s re-deployments and simply stayed, seeking a divorce from abroad.
Gary has unsuccessfully battled the family court system in California, which has jurisdiction over the divorce, for almost two years in order to gain some access to SS. After all, that same court demands he pay hefty child support.
"I am paying $2,100 a month not to see my son," Gary told Fox News in 2003.
This is the new face of father’s rights, a face men’s rights activists are determined you will see in coming months: the military man who is ‘processed’ by the family courts during his tour of duty or upon his return. A father who returns ‘home’ to children he cannot see and, often, to support payments he cannot make.
"Sometimes I wonder what I risked my life for [in Afghanistan]," Gary told fathers' rights activist Glenn Sacks. I went to fight for freedom but what freedom and what rights mean anything if a man doesn't have the right to be a father to his own child?"
On March 13, the men’s rights syndicated radio show "His Side" featured Gary in a program entitled "Two Years into Iraq War, Little Has Been Done to Protect the Rights of Military Fathers." Gary is not alone.
The grassroots organization American Coalition of Fathers and Children has just launched a vigorous ad campaign to educate the public on how anti-father bias in the courts is destroying the family. An ad currently being prepared by the ACFC highlights the dilemma of military dads who are victimized by zero-tolerance and unreasonable legislation that was passed to deal with "deadbeats."
Activists are pushing the image of the military father who is victimized by family courts not merely because it is true but primarily because it is effective. That image breaks through the pervasive cultural stereotype that fathers who lose custody or become "deadbeats" are uncaring, unfit, wife beating, child-abusing losers who deserve what they get.
Do uncaring and unfit fathers exist? Absolutely. But others fathers resemble Gary — a Navy veteran with a perfect military and civilian record. It is his image that father’s rights activists want you to see.
Why? Because to a large extent, it is the stereotype of the loser or abusive dad that permits family courts, government agencies and the general public to turn a deaf ear to the three main complaints of father’s rights activists. These complaints are:
—Responsible fathers are commonly denied custody or access to their children, often through the mother’s relocation
—Paternity fraud goes unpunished or even rewarded by judges who assess child support nevertheless
—Child support standards are unreasonable
By contrast, the family court system cannot ignore the complaints of alienated military fathers with the same impunity. For one thing, public opinion will not permit them to do so.
An indication of how strong the public backlash might be came in the early ‘90s with the Bobby Sherrill case. Sherrill wasn’t a member of the military proper; he was a Lockheed employee and divorced father working in Kuwait when Iraq invaded.
Sherrill was held captive by the Iraqis for five months. Upon his return to North Carolina, he was arrested for non-payment of $1,425 in child support that accrued while he was a hostage.
The public backlash passed, partly because people assumed Sherrill was an aberration, a bizarre exception under an otherwise ‘good’ law. But Sherrill was imprisoned because of the same unreasonable legislation that returning military fathers and every other alienated dad in America must face.
Phyllis Schlafly who publicly endorses the ACFC ad spotlighting military fathers — blasts one particular piece of legislation in her Feb. 18 column at TownHall, entitled "Reservists deserve protection from family-court mischief."
She writes, The Bradley Amendment…takes us back to the cruel days of debtors' prisons. It requires that a child-support debt cannot be retroactively reduced or forgiven, and states enforce this law no matter what the change in a father's income, no matter if he is sent to war…and no matter if he is ever allowed to see his children."
Consider one example of how the Bradley Amendment impacts military fathers. Reservists typically assume a sizeable pay cut when they transfer into military life. But child support is based on their civilian salaries and the Bradley Amendment effectively blocks readjustment of that debt.
Thousands of miles away and out of communication, such fathers are vulnerable to defaults that can lead to financial ruin, as well as the forfeiture of passports, driver’s and professional licenses. In some states, a default of over $5,000 is a felony that includes imprisonment.
Advocates of the Bradley Amendment maintain that taking a rock-hard line is necessary to ensure that deadbeat dads do not use loopholes to avoid their obligations. But these advocates are now arguing against a very different image of divorced fatherhood: The military dad.
He voices a message on behalf of every alienated father. Repeal the zero tolerance laws that have removed compassion and circumstance from family law. Repeal the Bradley Amendment; remove the bureaucracy that automatically separates father and child.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.