Mother Without Leave

Times Staff Writer

Simone Holcomb was a soldier motivated by duty and honor who knew the sacrifices her job required and performed without complaint.

That all changed when the National Guard medic, who spent the last eight months nursing wounded soldiers in Iraq, was forced to make a stark choice -- the Army or her children.

She chose the children. Now she faces charges of being absent without leave, or AWOL, casting a pall over a seven-year military career and her immediate future.

"I love the Army, I believe in the Army," Holcomb said during a recent interview in a Denver hotel room. "I made a promise to the Army and I am not trying to get out of it."

Holcomb, 30, was attached to an Army National Guard unit in Montrose, Colo., that was called up to serve in Iraq. Her husband, Vaughn, an Army tank platoon sergeant, was also sent there. His mother quit her job and moved from Akron, Ohio, to Ft. Carson to care for their seven children.

After about six months in Iraq, the couple learned that trouble was brewing at home. Vaughn Holcomb's ex-wife was trying to gain custody of two of the children.

They requested an emergency leave. After successfully fending off the custody challenge, an even bigger problem surfaced. Susan Bearer, Vaughn's mother, could no longer care for the children.

"She came to me and cried. She felt she was neglecting her husband, who was having serious health problems," Holcomb said. "She has watched the kids for eight months and uprooted her whole life. I told her I knew the children were my responsibility."

A judge said at least one parent had to stay with the children. Simone Holcomb sought reassignment, an extended emergency leave or a compassionate discharge, often done in hardship cases involving family.

The military refused and told her to be on the plane to Iraq when it left Oct. 9.

With no one to care for her children, Holcomb disobeyed the order. She said she received an e-mail telling her she was AWOL -- a charge that could land her in jail. At the very least, she could be discharged and lose all her military benefits such as health insurance and retirement pay.

Her lawyer, Giorgio Ra'Shadd, believes the military feared Holcomb had come home, seen her family and decided not to return.

"A lot of guys took the two-week vacation and didn't come back, and they are trying to lump her into that," he said. "If she puts one foot on that plane, she is abandoning her children according to Colorado law. That means her kids would be taken away and put in foster care."

Holcomb nodded vigorously.

"I offered to go back to Iraq, but right now I have to take care of my children," she said.

The case is being investigated by Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard and the Army inspector general's office.

"Sen. Allard has made inquiries with both the Pentagon and Ft. Carson. It strikes him that this is a legitimate hardship case," said Dick Wadhams, spokesman for the Republican lawmaker. "What is at stake here is that this couple could lose their kids thanks to circumstances that they have no control over."

Retired Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was asked about the case on a CNBC news program this week and said Holcomb should be given a compassionate discharge.

The Army said it was looking for ways to resolve the situation.

Col. Rich Thomas, spokesman for Army Forces Central Command in Atlanta, said every family is required to have a plan that sets out who will watch the children if husband and wife are deployed.

"There are all kinds of scenarios and circumstances, and if possible we try to make it work," he said.

Bearer can't believe this is happening to a family like hers: Aside from her son, who has served 20 years in the Army, her husband was a paratrooper, her grandson is in the Navy and her son-in-law is in the Air Force.

"My family has always been true to the military and true to this country," she said. "When they do this to you after you give up everything -- your home, your husband, your job and your income -- it's very upsetting. I can't even say how upset I am."

Holcomb isn't hiding from the Army. She's told them she is at Ft. Carson near Colorado Springs and has offered to work as a medic at the base.

She has also launched a media offensive. Thursday, she was in Denver talking to the BBC and local TV stations.

Still, the emotional toll is apparent. Her smiles are weak and her eyes tired. She often twists the gold cross around her neck when she speaks.

Seven children between the ages of 4 and 12 -- five from her first marriage and two from her husband's -- add to the stress.

Winding down in her hotel room, Holcomb calmly asked them to turn down the television, not walk on the bed and keep their voices quiet so they didn't bother other guests.

Her oldest, John, 12, is worried about his mom.

"I'm upset. I think it's unfair," he said. "It was hard when she wasn't here. It was difficult not seeing her sitting in her chair."

Such things are painful for Holcomb to hear.

"I just want to get through this," said Holcomb, who can't talk to her husband regularly because he doesn't have access to a phone. "There are good days and bad days. But right now my only support structure is myself."

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