They are the few, the proud, the terrified: Their sons and daughters are at war, sweet-faced children they nurtured through skinned knees and pre-teen angst who now face bullets and booby-trapped explosives.
War is hell, for soldiers and their parents.
Having a child at war defies a core instinct of parenthood — trying to protect your kids. That's impossible to do when they're thousands of miles from home and within sight of the enemy.
Parents of many of the 1.3 million Americans on active duty know the ordeal all too well.
"Psychologically, one of the worst situations someone can experience — perhaps the worst — is the loss of a son or daughter," says Michelle Kelley, a psychology professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and an expert on how military deployment affects families. "Not that having a spouse die isn't incredibly difficult, but having a child die before you is not in the 'natural order.' Even the uncertainty of knowing they are in harm's way is incredibly stressful."
Although the armed forces provide counseling and meetings to help soldiers' families prepare for deployment, it's usually at military bases where spouses and children live. "Parents are back home, typically not living near bases to go to deployment meetings," Kelley says. "They have fewer resources for help."
Even well-meaning friends and neighbors can have trouble relating to the ordeal of having a child in harm's way. They also might not fully comprehend another emotion widely shared by parents of enlistees: the immense pride in having raised a child who, aware of the uncertain fate, still volunteers to serve.
So parents of children in the military learn from each other, bands of mothers who provide support, comfort and answers in online chat boards and face-to-face "meet-ups" through a network of volunteer groups. Many groups are grassroots efforts that a single military parent started and that grew largely by word of mouth.
Military dads are sometimes allowed, but in large part, it's a community for the mothers of service men and women. "Military dads have the same feelings, but it's more socially acceptable for moms to express their emotions," says Kelley.
And in doing that with each other, they find some peace during their time of war.
Read about a mother of an American soldier in Afghanistan who connected with other military parents.