Mother's quest benefits deployed soldiers, children

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why this ranks as the No. 1 feature story of 2011:

Linda Norgaard fought the good fight for deployed soldiers serving our country -- and won. The mother of three persistently lobbied for change and realized it when a law passed in April 2011, allowing servicemen and women to assign visitation time with their children to a family member.

Iowa Army National Guard Sgt. Adam Norgaard hands teddy bears to his 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son during an Aug. 1, 2010, sendoff ceremony in Council Bluffs. (File photo)

A law passed in April 2010 aimed to allow soldiers to assign visitation time with their children to a family member while deployed. However, as it was written, the law left out parents who were granted custody or joint custody.

Iowa Army National Guard Sgt. Adam Norgaard realized this firsthand in August, when he was sent to Afghanistan. The 2004 Spencer High School alumnus, serving a second deployment with the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry, was responsible for calling in air strikes in support of the Afghan National Security Forces. The divorced father of two was granted joint custody of his 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter shortly after returning from duty in Iraq in 2007.

"We tried to use that law," Linda Norgaard, his mother, said. "He filed the necessary paperwork to try to get that done, but we didn't get a court hearing before he deployed Aug. 1, 2010. We finally got a date in August, after he left for service. He testified in court over the telephone. The judge denied the petition because Adam had joint custody of his children. The new law said he could assign visitation time; but Adam's was custody time, so it was denied. But, the judge did say in his decree there was compelling evidence that the children should maintain their relationship with me. So, he removed Adam's joint physical custody while he's deployed. That way, his time became visitation time."

This allowed his children to spend at least four days a month with their grandmother, which compared to the four days a week they had been spending with him at her rural Spencer home prior to his second deployment. Disappointed with the ruling because the children would no longer be able to maintain their routine or their contact with his side of the family, the staff accountant for Mueske Electric in Spirit Lake quickly found herself in the midst of a new quest that would extend from August 2010 until April.

"His contact with his children while he's deployed is through me," Norgaard said. "So, obviously, the more I have them, the more contact he has with them."

Norgaard began her newfound mission by notifying the individual who had originally written the 2010 bill.

"He indicated to me that the bill was poorly written and that it was not their intent to exclude custodial parents in this issue. But, they were very interested in getting the bill passed last spring because Iowa was deploying 3,500 soldiers," she said. "So, it became my mission to have the wording changed in the bill."

To accomplish this feat, Norgaard worked with Sen. Jack Kibbie, his assistant Steve Conway, Rep. Dwayne Alons and Rep. Jeff Smith, who introduced the newly-crafted bill in the House. She also emailed everybody on the Veterans Affairs Committee, alerting them to the issue.

A rewritten bill was introduced in January. After passing both the House and the Senate unanimously, it was signed into law in April by Gov. Terry Branstad.

"I'm so excited," Linda said of its passage. "I think it's too late for us to really do anything for this deployment for Adam, because he's going to be home in July, but the goal was to fix this for the future. This is not only affecting Adam, there are lots of soldiers out there. The military has a higher-than-average divorce rate. And, most of the men and women serving in this role have children. So, this is not just an occasional issue; this is an issue for a lot of families."

"We have an all-volunteer Army, which is good," the mother of three young men added. "But, they go off and fight for everybody's safety, freedom and rights. Yet, Adam's rights as a parent, I think, were not protected nearly as much as they maybe should have been.

"So, this is all about what's in the best interest of the children and what's fair for the soldiers who are serving our country. The best thing is for children to maintain a relationship with their deployed soldier and his or her side of the family."

Adam Norgaard, meanwhile, has joked with his mother that when she needs a second job, she should lobby for veterans affairs. When he returns home to Spencer in 15 weeks, his joint custody status will be renewed.

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