Military Life Active Duty Military Spouse

We Need To Stop Spreading Negative Stereotypes About Military Spouses

Last month was apparently open season on military spouses — or at least to many within the military spouse community, it certainly felt that way.

The Washington Post fired the first salvo, with an op-ed relaying an anecdote about the “entitled spouse” demanding a military discount, then used this to extrapolate that the whole military culture — spouses, kids, service members and vets — was over entitled. It was followed by an article by Carl Forsling here on Task & Purpose implying that military spouses and families need to get over themselves because they essentially asked for the problems they face. Forsling argued that you think being a military spouse is challenging, then put the spouse “on short final to an aircraft carrier and drop the service member into a minivan and see who dies first.”

This is, of course, utterly ridiculous — the percentage of service members who can actually make a short final to an aircraft carrier is miniscule; it’s why the status of being a carrier-qualified aviator is such a small fraction of the Navy and Marine Corps and it takes years of training. Undoubtedly, if left alone with sick and screaming little darlings in a minivan, stuck in traffic, with a trip to the commissary — or better yet, the base pharmacy — left on the day’s to-do list while his spouse was deployed on a carrier, Forsling might think the carrier job was the easier of the two. After all, as I discovered after leaving an active-duty rated career, there is no such thing as crew rest when your kids are sick and your spouse is deployed.

Undoubtedly, neither author is particularly aware of the damage he has done to the military spouse community by painting it as “entitled.” But the problem with both pieces is one that they are reflective of generalizations often made about the American military and veterans’ communities. There is an outcry against the media when the PTSD-ridden veterans who commits a violent crime becomes the face of America’s military; and yet, it is so easy to allow the so-called dependa (short for dependapotamus) or the entitled spouse to be the face of all American military spouses.

When I left active duty, the dependa legend was so ingrained that I swore I would never have military spouses as friends, except for an elite few who met my standards when I was active duty. How humbling it was only a few short months later when I was brand new to Utah, seven months pregnant and raising a 21-month-old with a husband who left on temporary duty assignment the day it snowed six inches. My neighbors — military spouses, of course — had to come to my rescue. They ensured my walks and drive were shoveled. They offered to watch my daughter while I went to medical appointments or the grocery store. One helped me make beautiful handmade birth announcements for my son. Over the next three years, I was pleasantly surprised when other spouses entered my circle. When my husband was deployed, they were there. If my civilian friends couldn’t get on base and the kids were sick, often I would find fresh baked goods left on the porch. On one memorable Mother’s Day when my husband was gone and both kids decided to get sick, a fellow spouse left a steak, salad, and baked potato for me. We swapped kids and recipes, brought dinners and cookies to each other, juggled household repair projects, snow shoveling, and yard work — all together.

Perhaps the hardest part of my husband leaving the military was knowing that there wouldn’t be a next base, no new families to meet, and new friends to make. And so as I read the Washington Post and Task & Purpose pieces, all I could think of were those military spouses who had so graciously been there, no matter what time, no matter what was going on in their lives. Entitled? No.

While service members and military children are regularly studied to determine patterns and relationships, the research is lacking on military spouses. We know, for instance, based on this Institute for Veterans and Military Families study released in 2014, that they are likely younger and more educated than the American female population as a whole. They are also more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, and if they are employed, they are more likely to be underpaid. We know based on the 2013 demographics that military spouses are likely to be female and over half are under the age of 30 with two children, and that 3% of military marriages are dual military. Studies have indicated that stress levels of the stay-at-home caregiver are vital to the psychological well-being of the children left behind when a service member deploys.

But aside from this scant information, we really know very little about military spouses as a whole. How familiar were they with military culture before they married into it? Were they raised as military dependents and sought out spouses to stay in the culture? Are they prior veterans, those who were previously considered dual-military marriages? What makes one more resilient than the other? Does having prior experience within military culture help with resiliency or is it a hindrance? Do official and unofficial mentors within the community assist with this process? What is the military spouse culture like and how is it viewed, both within and without the military community? Does the culture differ from location to location, or branch to branch?

These questions aren’t easy to answer, and so it becomes more simple to instead leap to stereotypes and caricatures. The apocryphal tales of the “bad spouse” who sports camo while squandering her husband’s paycheck on designer purses, neglecting her children, ignoring the housework, causing chaos among the squadron spouses (often by attempting to assume her husband’s rank), and acting entitled eventually ruining her husband’s career, circulate openly. Spouse bashing is rampant on social media; while outlets have previously highlighted pages targeting female active-duty members (even getting the Marine Corps to admit that those pages go “against good order and discipline”), the answer to the misogynistic insults hurled at spouses gets dismissed by half-hearted journalism and a “just embrace it” mentality. Is it really okay to denigrate women, as long as they’re “just spouses?” Is this really the message we want to send people outside the military community, especially as doofer books are coming back into the news? One can only imagine what Sheryl Sandberg — author of “Lean In” and chief operating officer of Facebook — would think of these pages were she personally aware of them or what she would say about how they represent a failure of leadership. After all, military spouse organizations are one of the largest leadership opportunities for women, and yet when military spouses stick out or rock the boat, they’re effectively told — often by those in uniform — to shut up and stop acting like a dependa.

Spouse bashing also ignores the crucial function that many spouses fill, even as many feel compelled to give up their own careers, or are unable to pursue careers of their own due to their spouse’s military involvement. Think about it this way: Had I taken the “divorce is cheap” route and walked out prior to any of my husband’s deployments, who would have been there to raise kids (with all the duties that entails), keep the household running, and deal with all the little fix-it projects that crop up? Sure, I suppose he could have paid someone to be housekeeper, childcare provider, chef, gardener, taxi driver, secretary, dog walker, and personal shopper. But by stepping out of my Air Force career to ensure my husband could deploy worldwide at a moment’s notice without a care in the world regarding our children or our household, I essentially rendered myself a force enabler. And there are many more spouses out there like myself, who made a decision between their military careers and their families, who continued their service by assisting their spouses.

Military spouses volunteer their time throughout the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, whether in assisting other spouses trying to figure out Tricare or other military-associated bureaucracies, or in the grassroots budget battles that have taken place over the last several years, led by the groups, such as Keep Your Promise. Broadly painting military spouses as entitled when many have fought hard to protect earned benefits for military service members is shortsighted, to say the very least.

No one is questioning that military service members have difficult jobs. By the same token, no one should question whether or not military spouses often face difficult times or fill difficult roles of their own. Most spouses aren’t asking for or expecting to receive special treatment, nor do they expect civilians to accommodate them, but they don’t want to be insulted or stereotyped either. Are there bad actors among the spouse community? I’m sure there are, just as there are bad actors among the military or the veterans’ communities. But maybe if instead of broadcasting the dependa stereotype to an American population that is largely disconnected from its military, we started personally engaging with the bad actors to correct them and highlighting the good ones, we could do a lot more for our communities — both military and civilian.