Before Iraq, he fights for Tyler

Published May 19, 2007

TAMPA - Staff Sgt. Joshua Summerlin feels overextended, stretched to the limit fighting two wars.

His Army captain wants him back in Iraq.

"SSG Summerlin, Once again, you are AWOL, " barks an e-mail.

But returning to Iraq would mean turning his back on his son.

The boy's mother was accused of child abuse. A judge gave custody to the mother's boyfriend, amid doubts that Summerlin could perform a father's duties while deployed in Iraq.

"Mr. Summerlin is currently out of the country serving in the military, so Tyler does not get to see him often, " a social worker advised the court.

Now, Summerlin, 26, is running out of time and money as he tries to get permanently reassigned to MacDill Air Force Base, in the hope of winning custody.

Wednesday, barring another extension, he is scheduled to check out of his hotel at MacDill and fly to Iraq, leaving the battle for his son behind.

"How can you fight a war when you have this on your mind?" Summerlin asked.

Of active-duty military members, 5.4 percent, or more than 74, 000, are single parents, according to the Defense Department. So are more than 68, 000 National Guard and reserve members.

"Family issues that are active for military members who are deployed rarely ever go away, " said Kathleen Moakler of the National Military Family Association.

Things are tough enough for intact families split by war, tougher for single parents with shared custody. Summerlin didn't even have custody, leaving him at a disadvantage in the Army, which makes allowances for family needs.

"That's a common theme for the military. If I don't have custody, there's nothing they can do for me, " Summerlin said. "That's the wall I hit time and time again."

The federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act was supposed to protect deployed military members by postponing civil court and administrative proceedings until parents come home. But family law judges don't always abide by it, Moakler said.

"They can take the federal law as a suggestion, " she said. "They're looking out for the child."

Florida lawmakers passed a bill this year aimed a protecting parental rights of deployed service members. If signed by the governor, the law wouldn't take effect until July - too late for Summerlin.

Abuse charge

Tyler Summerlin was born Sept. 3, 2000. His parents, who had met on a Louisiana Army base, were married about a year.

Joshua Summerlin landed at a base in Alaska. His ex-wife, Jennifer Staten, left the military and followed her boyfriend to MacDill, Summerlin said.

Summerlin saw his son when he could. Phone calls were regular, he said. Then, on May 19, 2006, Tampa police arrested Staten on a charge of aggravated child abuse.

The mother had pricked Tyler with needles when he misbehaved, court records state. She admitted getting "heavy-handed" over a period of three weeks while stressed and ill. She told investigators Tyler asked too many questions. Her boyfriend, Arthur Cardona, told her to stop spanking the couple's daughter, Tyler's half-sister, records say.

Multiple attempts to reach Staten and Cardona for this story were unsuccessful.

While Staten was in jail, case workers left the children with her boyfriend.

Summerlin, who knew he was headed to Iraq, took leave from the military and flew to Tampa. He petitioned the court to let Tyler live with Summerlin's mother in North Carolina.

But the judge wouldn't move Tyler out of state. He left him temporarily in Cardona's house, where Staten's mother helped care for Tyler. When Cardona, also in the Army, went to Afghanistan, the boy stayed with a military friend.

The mother entered a program for first-time offenders, court records show, and began a rehabilitation plan that included counseling and classes. Caseworkers allowed her to see the children again and expressed optimism the family could be reunited.

Last month, while in Iraq, Summerlin learned caseworkers had recommended the boyfriend get permanent custody. Cardona had served as a father to Tyler, and the boy had grown up with Cardona's daughter.

Officials at the Children's Home overseeing the case won't comment on the specifics.

Lisa Braswell, a spokeswoman, said wartime custody decisions aren't made lightly. Stability carries weight. Caseworkers also try to keep families together and kids in the state, she said.

After begging his commanders and his chaplain for leave, Summerlin returned to Tampa on April 19 to fight for custody. On May 1, he lost. Cardona won a first step toward permanent custody.

But the judge left the case open for six months, giving Summerlin one last opportunity to get stationed at MacDill and present his case.

Summerlin waits for the Army to act on his request.

His commanders in Iraq rescinded their AWOL report after seeing proof that U.S. Central Command had approved his temporary attachment to MacDill.

"The whole system is against me, " he said. "I feel that I'm punished for being overseas."

Not buying it

Not everyone sympathizes with Summerlin.

"As far as I'm concerned, " Army Sgt. 1st Class Jessica Adams said, "he's a deadbeat dad."

Cardona turned to her to watch the kids when he was sent to Afghanistan.

In six months, she said, Summerlin called once from Iraq.

She served there. She knows soldiers have access to phones.

"I was constantly having to lie to Tyler about why his daddy doesn't call me, " Adams said.

She said Summerlin never sent money. His mother disobeyed caseworkers and told Tyler over the phone that he would soon be living with his father, she said.

Once, the boy told Adams she needed to buy him a winter coat, a hat and gloves because he was moving to Alaska with his dad.

Adams said the first time she met Summerlin, he verbally threatened her and Cardona outside a custody hearing.

Summerlin said he couldn't call because he was on combat patrols. He admits he lost his cool after the hearing. He was emotional, having just lost his son, he said.

In contrast, Adams said, the mother gave her any extra money she had. She seemed to be working to rehabilitate herself, Adams said, and caseworkers eventually let Tyler and his half-sister stay with her for entire days.

"I won't defend her actions, " Adams said. "What she did was wrong. As far as her efforts to be reunified with her kids, I've never seen her be anything but a good mother."

Waiting, hoping

Summerlin waits for the Army's answer from a series of motel rooms. He planned to spend Friday with Tyler, but Cardona barred him from visitation after learning he had talked to a newspaper reporter, Summerlin said.

He had hoped to play football with his son, cook him macaroni and cheese and play Mousetrap, a board game. On Thursday, he took cupcakes and juice to Tyler's class at school.

People have told him he could have avoided this predicament had he sought custody sooner, before Staten's arrest. He gets upset and says he has been stationed five different places in his nine-year Army career.

His ex-wife, who had left the military, seemed to offer a more stable home until her arrest.

"It wouldn't have been fair to anyone involved, specifically Tyler, to get him and then be sent to Iraq, " he said.

In his camouflage duffel bag, he keeps souvenirs of two worlds.

A soldier's uniform. His son's pajamas.

Times staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or 813 226-3368.