Soldier Returns Home to Custody Battle

Filed under: Divorce & Custody, In The News

Leydi Mendoza

Leydi Mendoza, left, spent 10 months serving in Iraq; now she's fighting for custody of her daughter. Credit: Juan Arredondo, The New York Times / Redux

A 22-year-old returning soldier locked in a harrowing custody battle was granted visitation with her 2-year old daughter this week while the court considers the child's future.

It's a soldier's worst nightmare: Returning home from military deployment only to find herself without her children. That's exactly what happened to Leydi Mendoza, a specialist with the New Jersey National Guard. The mom-soldier, who returned home from Iraq in May, is fighting for custody of her 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. The battle began when the child's father, Daniel Llares, decided that allowing Mendoza joint custody would be too disruptive for their toddler, according to a story in The New York Times.

Llares' lawyer, Amy Lefkowitz, told The New York Times that her client believes it is disruptive for Elizabeth to spend more than a few hours at a time with "a mother she doesn't really know or recognize that well."

Passaic County Family Court Judge George Rohde granted Mendoza daily visits with her daughter until the legal dispute is fully resolved. She will also be allowed to have her daughter for weekend sleepovers, according to an Associated Press report.

"It was hard," Mendoza told The Associated Press. "I'm just glad the judge granted me these visitation days."

Several of Mendoza's fellow soldiers attended the hearing, dressed in fatigues and combat boots, to support their friend.

The young woman, who is studying to be a math teacher, has already racked up more than $6,000 in legal bills, according to The New York Times.

Master Sgt. Minnie Hiller-Cousins, a National Guard family assistance coordinator, helped create the family care plan for Mendoza and Llares, which gave Llares temporary custody of Elizabeth while Mendoza was serving in Iraq. The plan also stipulated that the two parents would resume joint custody upon Mendoza's return home.

The military does not, however, enforce the plan.

Hiller-Cousins told the AP that the case highlights one of a soldier's many fears: That they will come home only to find their jobs, houses and children have slipped away.

"When a soldier comes home, the first thing they want to see is their family," Hiller-Cousins told the AP. "People were kissing and hugging all around, and (Mendoza) was standing there by herself."

The final custody agreement for Elizabeth has not yet been settled, but for now the child is reunited with her mother, who planned to serve spaghetti -- the toddler's favorite dish -- for their first mother-daughter dinner.

Should the military be responsible for creating and enforcing custody agreements for soldiers?

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