You may be thinking that I am talking about the female servicemember, but I am actually talking about her counterpart, the military spouse (of which approximately 93 percent are still women).   According to the Rand Corporation, the research organization often used to conduct studies for the Department of Defense, although military spouses often have more education than their civilian counterparts, they are also often more frequently under-employed and under-paid than those same counterparts. 

Frequently, military spouses end up on a de facto mommy track—even when they don’t have children.   More than half of our military spouses have children, but without the support of the other parent, the difficulty of single parenting (in essence) turns many a working or studying spouse into a stay at home mom (or dad).   For those without children, the frequent moves alone hurt career and educational goals and aspirations.  I have met military spouses with college credits from four or more colleges (although the rise in credibility of on-line universities is changing this).  For a spouse who obtains her educational goals, she then faces the fact that she either chooses a “portable” career (the Department of Defense encourages teaching, nursing, medical transcriptionists, etc…) or watches her own career deflate like a flan in the cupboard for too long.  Not to mention that most military installations are in economically depressed areas and many employers do not want to invest in someone who could leave with little to no notice any time in the next six months to two years.  As a result, many military spouses turn to working from home as an outlet for their career aspirations, starting their own small businesses if they can (hence the creation and success of organizations like the Military Spouse Business Association).    

Former President Ronald Reagan declared the Friday before Mother’s Day, Military Spouse Appreciation Day.  Frankly, however, spouses need more than a day of appreciation.  Military spouses endure nearly every hardship of military life (absent actually going to war) that servicemembers do and yet there is no formal recognition of it or support for them.  Moreover, it never occurs to lawmakers or others that there should be.   Benefits to ease the burdens of the multiple moves, such as being able to maintain one state of residency (this is the second year Congress is pondering the Military Spouse Residency Relief Act) and rewards for “serving” your country, such as the veterans preference in hiring for federal jobs, are not given to military spouses.  Military spouses (and children for that matter), do not even have comparable dental and vision care.  So long as they are stationed in the United States (as opposed to Germany, for example), military dependents are not allowed to received dental or vision care on post and have to pay into a limited dental and vision plan.

To illustrate the federal hiring preference, consider my own marriage.  After six years and four military moves, including Germany, I have been on the aforementioned mommy track.  If I were to apply for a federal job, I would discover that although I have spent the past six years moving to support my husband’s career (and subsequent promotions), there is no military spouse hiring preference comparable to the veterans hiring preference.   Thus, while my husband has had no interruption in his own career to compensate for, he would automatically get a five point preference (over me) for an honorable discharge from service and a ten point preference if he had a ten percent service connected disability rating or higher.  I do not begrudge that of our veterans and wounded warriors; in fact, I advocate it.  But I also support equity in benefits for service and I believe that the sacrifices being made by spouses should be recognized in these hiring preferences, PARTICULARLY because of the obstacles faced by military spouses with regards to furthering their educations and/or careers.

When this presidential election came down to Senators Obama and McCain, there was a lot of talk about national service and what it means to “serve” your country.  McCain and his supporters naturally felt they had the market covered with his military service during the Vietnam War (and subsequent years as a prisoner of war).  Then-Senator Obama and his supporters countered that national service, or put differently, serving your country, can come in many shapes and forms—not solely that of a man in a uniform bearing arms.   Echoing that theme of variegated national service and its value to this country in its diversity, was Angie Morgan, a military spouse and member of Blue Star Families for Obama that I interviewed at the Democratic National Convention in August of 2008 for Military Spouse Magazine.  In that interview, Angie Morgan told me that as a military spouse she was “excited” by now President Obama’s vision of “active citizenship” whereby everyone serves this country in some capacity, albeit not necessarily by wearing a uniform (i.e., referencing volunteer work and other ways of being socially conscious and sensitive to the needs of your fellow Americans in your day to day decision making).

Michelle Obama made it known during the campaign that the welfare of military families was of particular importance to her.  Since the election, she has held several events with military spouses and apparently will have a staff devoted to these issues.  If we are going to recognize and reward the military service of the soldier, why not do the same for the spouse—the one person in the service who has been willing to sacrifice his or her career and/or educational aspirations to support the mission of the military by supporting the orders of the servicemember?  

Meanwhile, here at Fort Hood, Texas, I have learned that they cannot give me figures on spouse suicides but they know that they see so many attempted suicides in the Emergency Room that the medical staff have become quite adept at handling them.   My theory is that these spouses may have reached the point of needing emergency mental health care and this is the only way to receive it.  As a military spouse, no matter what your circumstances, there is no emergency mental health care for you unless you end up in the ER.  If you are a soldier here, of course, there is twenty four hour mental health care and a walk in “Rest and Resiliency” center (R and R center).   The R and R center has its critics and its flaws, but it exists.  There is no R and R center for families.

Finally, there is the issue of treating the post-traumatic stress of military spouses.  We do not have any public service announcements about the trauma of being married in the military and to the military; to a man or woman who is sometimes permanently altered in ways that you never imagined when you married him or her.   At least once or twice a month a soldier in Fort Hood housing is arrested for domestic violence.  It is interesting that the Department of Defense likes to emphasize that deployments are not the cause of an increase in domestic violence but cannot refute that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is.  While the Rand Corporation found that 1 in 5 soldiers will likely return with PTSD, the Veterans Administration has diagnosed 40 percent of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with PTSD.   We have no studies and no figures for spousal PTSD.

I often tell people that after this last combat tour, my husband is NOT the only veteran in this marriage, but apparently I am the only person who believes this to be the case.  Despite seven years of wars and deployments that have led to an alarming increase in Army divorce as well as partner violence (the latter is believed to be connected to the increase in post-traumatic stress disorder), the federal government doesn’t recognize the “service” of the military spouse.  Will a Democratic Administration like the Obama’s and now, with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s recent move to the Democratic Party, a Democratic Congress change this?

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