This week in my series for Everyone Serves, I’m going to shift gears just a touch. This particular topic does not relate directly to my deployment (or any deployment), although deployment is certainly a factor to consider in the discussion. But today, I want to talk about perception. Specifically: the perception of military spouses.
The question I want you to keep in the back of your minds while you are reading is “what does a military spouse look like?”
It’s an interesting question for me to be addressing, because I bet that even those of you who know me don’t picture me when you think about what a military wife is like. I don’t fit the archetype. And if I don’t fit it, that means there must be one. Or at least, we must have been sold on the idea of one.
There are actually two competing archetypes that are popular for the media to throw around these days. They are polar opposites, and boy do they cause a stir among actual military spouses. Ironically enough, even among our own ranks we are split on the question of which one is right.
One camp’s archetype is one I’ll call the “Die Hard MilSpouse.” She is the tough-as-nails, fights-for-her-family-while-her-soldier-fights-for-his-country military wife (or husband, but I’ll use one gender for ease of constructing a sentence). Rosie the Riveter is her spirit guide. This woman can handle anything; she’s time-tested, hardworking and ready for whatever comes her way because she has to be.
The other camp’s archetype I’ll call the “Spoonfed MilSpouse.” She’s the spoiled, lazy all-I-do-is-drink-tea-with-the-FRG-ladies-because-that’s-all-the-FRG-does woman. (The FRG archetype is a whole other ball of wax). She’s allergic to work, oozing entitlement. She’s never satisfied with what she has, always demanding more. Loudly. She’s the MilSpouse of which our VetSpouse grandmothers are ashamed because she’s never seen real hardship.
A good example of the sparring that occurs between these archetypes happened earlier this year. In the military community, we called it “Ketchupgate.” An author from the Washington Post wrote an article describing the military as an entitlement culture of Spoonfed MilSpouses. Numerous military spouse bloggers fired back, waiving the banner of Die Hard MilSpouse. You can see examples here and here of just a few of those responses.
But often the sparring is much more subtle. Earlier this month, SpouseBuzz published an article called “5 Things Military Spouses Could Learn From Their ‘Old School’ Sisters,” which sounds like the gentle chiding of Spoonfed MilSpouse’s VetSpouse grandmother trying to put her back on the right track. Spend five minutes looking at the comments, though, and you see the conversation quickly devolves into open warfare. People take these things very personally.
The thing about Die Hard MilSpouse and Spoonfed MilSpouse is that they’re convenient caricatures with almost no basis in reality. I’m sure somewhere out there both of these women (and men) exist. But as with every effort to summarize an entire group of people, the thousands of shades of MilSpouse in between them are totally lost. In my experience, though, most MilSpouses fall much closer to the Die Hard end of the spectrum than the Spoonfed end. Frankly, Spoonfed is not a word in my vocabulary for descriptors of the military life, so it's hardly apropos of any person in it. For my money, a MilSpouse looks a lot like any other person working hard to take care of their family, only they have to balance that care against duty and service.
One reason the caricatures persist is that civilian culture and military culture are just different. When the military community wants to be heard, we have to shout a lot louder because there are far fewer of us. And the problem, of course, is that we serve in silence the rest of the time. People don’t often hear what our lives are like in the 98% of the time that we’re not shouting; the demands are all anyone hears. So let me break down three of the things that we shout for, and why they are important.
FAIRNESS. Many (if not most) soldiers come to the military with the kind of education, professional skills, and experience that are very valuable in the private sector. They know, by choosing to serve their country rather than work as a civilian, that they will not be paid what the private sector pays people with like skills. And that’s ok.
What’s not ok, though, is when the pay and benefits difference is so great that a military family can barely scrape by. When that happens, people start leaving the military. That happened in the 90s. The pay difference became so great that personnel retention was a big issue. So the Department of Defense, started trying to play catch-up. Annual raises in the military outpaced annual raises for other government employees, because DOD was working to close a gap. Even with those raises, military pay and benefits are still far behind what you find in the private sector today.
But that is not what you hear in the media. What you hear is that, on a percentage basis, soldiers are getting bigger raises than everyone else, and so they should be cut. Everyone else has to pay for medical insurance, so military families should too. Private sector retirement benefits have greater limitations than military retirement benefits, so the military needs to change.
|"...fight for your families, your sons and |
your daughters, your wives and your home."
And so we shout for fairness. We shout that military pay is still woefully out of pace with market, and cuts will make it even worse. We shout that soldiers should have their health looked after by the country they are fighting for. (Their families, by the way, do not get free health care. We pay premiums, deductibles, and copays just like everyone else). And we shout that a career of military service is different from a civilian career. It takes a different toll on the soldier, and the family. And we shout that there is no fairness in changing the system when people are already in it, when people have already spent years serving. Which leads to my next point.
GOOD FAITH. As with any other professional commitment, a person becomes a soldier by contract. The person joining the military promises to serve and defend this nation, promises a fixed period of time for that service, and promises to honor that commitment even if it means sacrifice of life and limb (for some, it costs that much). In return, the government makes promises too. Promises of compensation and benefits. Promises that the soldier will be well-trained and well-equipped when called upon to defend this nation in combat. Promises of care for a soldier’s family during the course of service.
Recently all of these promises have been under attack. Maybe that sounds melodramatic, but it’s the truth. The United States needs to reduce its spending, and Congress is calling for the majority of that reduction to come from Defense. There have been calls for reduced pay and benefits; reduced expenditures at military installations; reduction or elimination of family “entitlements” like grocery stores, and on-post schools and medical facilities.
And so again, all we can do is shout. We shout for good faith. We call on this country to keep its promises: to pay what’s been promised; to care for our soldiers (our HUSBANDS and WIVES) in the way this country has promised; to care for the families back home as promised.
We do not shout that all must stay the same. As I’ve written before, most of us recognize that certain things need to change. But we are expected by this country to serve as promised, and so we shout for this country to care as promised. That leads to my final point.
RESPECT. There’s one way in which some of these “old guard” MilSpouses are different from today’s: they weren’t volunteers. They didn’t choose to serve, they came to service by way of the draft. Today’s military is an all-volunteer force. People choose to serve this country, and as a direct result of that choice, other people are not required to serve.
Unfortunately, sometimes it is easy to forget that the reason we don’t have a draft today is because we don’t need one. There are enough people who volunteer. They serve on behalf of everyone else.
And so we shout for respect. We are serving so you don’t have to! We shout for recognition of a very real sacrifice that we live every day for a country we love. We shout that every civilian has the freedom not to serve because someone else is doing so.
And the reason that respect is important is because it provides the context for everything else we shout for. We are volunteers. We are the 1% serving on behalf of an entire nation of people. And to continue serving we need fairness. And we need good faith.