An Open Letter to Congress
Dear Members of Congress,
I would specifically appeal to my senators and congressman here, but my congressman has banned me from his Facebook page for accusing the lot of you of acting like a bunch of pre-teens fighting over glitter nail polish and 7 jeans during a looming shutdown (therefore, I know he throws away my emails and letters), one senator is the typical I-am-deaf-to-your-reasoning-because-I-have-opinions-and-they-are-already-purchased-by-a-company-paying-me-all-teh-monies, and the other senator hasn’t had a chance to blow me off yet because he’s brand spanking new.
So for all the good it will do us, I will appeal to the lot of you and hope someone is listening and actually gives a good goddamn.
First, who is this “us” I speak of? Military spouses. We are a silent minority, toiling in the background, and expected–even in this more enlightened age–to stay quiet and docile and not make a fuss. More of us feel empowered with technology to speak our minds, but we’re still largely ignored. We matter even less than service members do.
But here’s the thing: we do matter. We are the wizards behind the curtain, the ones who make things happen while the service members are busy with the tasks you and the Commander in Chief pass down. We are the gear the military would have issued our service members if the government had wanted our men and women in uniform to have spouses, the ones who are given lip service for all we do and endure but understanding all the while that our struggles don’t matter. We are the uncounted, the ignored, the ever-present and ever-struggling, and it’s about damned time we were heard.
I have been a milspouse for twenty years now, and in that time, I have never heard of or seen a politician or military commander acknowledge the price we pay–our careers pay–to keep our families as whole as the military will allow. This misstep isn’t just nonsensical. It’s insulting because the struggle isn’t new, we have not kept our challenges quiet, and yet we are still ignored.
Many of us are welcomed into the military life with a swat on the butt and a “Welcome to the [service], Mrs/Mr X,” and are expected to put our needs aside to support the important career in the family: that of the service member. Yes, they have important jobs. Yes, there are legal ramifications if they don’t follow orders. And they’re gone so frequently and for potentially long stretches, and we want to be a family, so we follow them around the world in hopes that we can make the times together really matter.
We didn’t come into this life without goals and aspirations. Many of us stepped into this new role of milspouse with at least the first steps toward a particular career, and many of us have had to abandon those aspirations because they’re not compatible with this life.
We didn’t all come into this life thinking we’d have to completely change course or even endure long stretches of unemployment on our resumes, and yet that’s what’s happened.
We didn’t step into our roles thinking, “Well, I guess I’d better find some kind of volunteer position to fill this resume gap. And I guess I’d better find a way to shave off some of our expenses so we can survive the next few years without my paycheck.” We didn’t think we’d have to sacrifice our financial goals to be with the men or women we love.
We might have known what we were getting into when we married into the military, or when the military joined our marriages, but you can’t really know what sacrifices are required or how soul-sucking those sacrifices can be until you’ve lived it.
And the thing is, this particular sacrifice–this giving up our career goals, our economic safety nets, our own retirements–is pointless. Technology today is not what it was when I embarked on this Navy adventure twenty years ago. Today, we have email, Skype, webinars, VoIP, secure networks, high speed internet. We have tools that mean our physical presence is unnecessary. We can still attend meetings, even when they’re happening five time zones away. We can still pop in on a team member to discuss an issue, brainstorm new ideas, confab on a project, or just chat and build camaraderie…we just won’t physically be in their cubicle.
We milspouses are adaptable creatures. Semper Gumby is our motto, and so is Get Out of My Way For I Have Shit to Do. We are flexible. We are adventurous. We are strong and proud and motivated. We have dreams and goals, and most of us have to shelve those until our spouses leave the service, or else we have to agree to spend the bulk of our marriages living apart…and what kind of marriage is that? Those milspouses, the ones who pursue their own dreams far from their spouses–they are sacrificing just as much as those of us who follow our spouses. The problem is that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t–the sacrifice rests squarely on us. Give up on being with the person who inspires us to be our best selves, or give up on what lights a fire in us? Civilian spouses are not required to make this Solomon decision*.
But dear Congress, don’t believe for a second that this doesn’t affect the service members and their ability to do their jobs. Especially as you chip away at the benefits your military personnel have earned through egregious toil in the last decade-plus, they are feeling the financial pinch when their spouses have to leave a job during a PCS and can’t find anything (even minimum wage) at the next duty station because their resume looks like a typical milspouse’s, and who wants to hire someone who’s only going to be here two years, anyway?
Don’t believe for a second service members’ morale isn’t affected when their spouses are completely unfulfilled by the administrative assistant job they scored only because they hid their MBA degree on their resume.
Don’t believe for a second that there isn’t a tiny sliver of toxic resentment chipping away at some of these marriages, affecting the service member’s ability to stay focused at work.
Don’t believe this problem of underemployed and unemployed milspouses isn’t a major issue for you, the ones who send the service members off to war.
We spouses get a lot of lip service, and in those few cases where we see a tiny ray of hope in the form of not-lip service (MyCAA, anyone?), it is yanked away from us. And if it returns (MyCAA, anyone?), it is restricted and restrictive, limiting spouses to pre-approved “careers” that, while great jobs, don’t actually offer any upward mobility. Medical transcriptionists don’t often climb the ladder to CEO, do they? An associate degree opens a door, but where does it lead?
A milspouse should have the opportunity and ability to take a job–whether for fun or extra money or as the next rung on the career ladder–any job, anywhere. Some jobs are impossible to make portable (you can’t telework a sous chef position), but so many jobs are.
Again: So many jobs are or can be made portable. Because technology!
Government sparks so many jobs. Proven need sparks even more. Lip service will no longer cut it. Listen to us. Hear our voices. Spark a change.
Incentivize milspouse employment. Incentivize jobs that are portable, that offer upward mobility, and that are as flexible as milspouses are.
Incentivize employing milspouses and ensure companies can’t discriminate against milspouses with lower pay or by passing us over just because we are milspouses (this does happen–all the time).
We should not be forced to sacrifice our dreams, our goals, our careers–or our families–because our spouses are serving this great country.
Do right by us for once, Congress. We’ve earned it.
*Nearly all, anyway. There are civilian families forced into this position.