Army Families Under Fire
As we approach eight years of war, too many military families are quietly coming apart at the seams. The public hears the most dramatic stories and statistics -- soldiers killing their wives, themselves, each other. Less well known are the effects that prolonged war and multiple deployments have had on our daily lives. As the wife of a commander of a battalion that deployed last year, I know that many of us feel embittered, powerless and disconnected from the Army in which we and our husbands serve.
The blogosphere provides a sense of the many families coping with health issues and the less tangible effects of war and military life, including how marginalized many feel. "Spare me the rah rah party line about how much the Army is doing for the soldiers once they come home," wrote one wife whose husband had suffered a traumatic brain injury. "[T]hey don't do even half of what they should to provide adequate treatment for soldiers coming back from deployment." Wrote another wife: "We are outsiders living inside an institution that doesn't want to see or hear us. . . . You don't have to wear a uniform to be wounded by these wars, but no one outside of those of us impacted seem[s] to know this."
Dishearteningly, the response from Army and Defense Department leaders has been haphazard, sluggish and widely ineffective.
To be fair, no one expected our all-volunteer military to be bogged down in years-long battles across the globe. But the loose network of support systems for military families -- which arose from the more traditional and rank-based officers' wives coffee groups -- in place when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began were quickly overwhelmed. And the military's inability to assess the wars' effects on its families and to adapt and restructure its approach has frustrated families in the "trenches."
The old saying is that "If the Army had wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one." Army leaders would say this is no longer true, pointing to the many services and programs dedicated to supporting soldiers and their families. Standard operating procedures have been implemented and memos issued -- including one mandating that the word "Families" be capitalized in all Army correspondence "to exhibit the Army's recognition of their sacrifice and importance." We should be grateful, satisfied and quiet.
Questioning policies and speaking out are considered presumptuous breaches of protocol that could land your soldier in hot water. I know this from experience. In April 2007, my husband and I were among a group of commanders and wives invited to meet with a visiting four-star general. When the general took questions, I stood and said that after six years of war, the Army should no longer expect its burned-out volunteer Family Readiness Groups, running almost entirely without funds, to handle the serious issues facing military families. Some senior leaders on base were not happy about my comments, to say the least.
For years I tried to draw attention to these issues the "right way" and got nowhere. These issues are too important for me to remain quiet.
What needs to change? First, families -- particularly the volunteer wives upon whom the military relies so heavily -- need Army directors willing to ask and listen instead of dictating and commanding. It might be naive to suggest such an approach to the nation's most hierarchical organization, but most of those responsible for soldier and family support initiatives are out of touch. Their knowledge gap results in delayed responses, reactive policies, misdirected resources and, ultimately, too many families falling through the cracks. New gym equipment and child-care facilities are great, but expanding and implementing mental health services so a soldier's child doesn't have to wait six months to see a psychiatrist is more important. Why has it taken so long to establish respite care, so that a mother of four whose sergeant husband is serving in Afghanistan can get to the gym?
Second, families, like their soldiers, connect with their units, not "Big Army." Too often, the leadership at the unit level -- from senior sergeants to colonels -- fails to provide basic support. Indeed, many believe doing so should not be part of their job. Maybe they're right, but right now the Army says it is a part of their job, so proper training should be incorporated into the educational curriculum at all levels of command. Today, commanders receive months of training regarding how to lead their units when they deploy but are taught next to nothing about how to care for the families of their soldiers. To show that it is serious, the Army should include in its evaluation reports -- the key to promotions -- an assessment of how well officers do on family support.
Finally, the Army should directly fund its mandated Family Readiness Groups. Currently, Army regulations require that fundraising be done within units -- so we bake cupcakes and sell them to our own husbands in the motor pool, effectively taking from the people we are trying to support. We shouldn't have to fundraise to treat families to pizza and bowling while their soldiers are deployed.
After multiple deployments, even the strongest wives -- the ones most likely to volunteer -- are at the end of their ropes. "I can't do it anymore," one wife told me. "I'm just trying to hold my own family together." Our military families deserve better.
The Obama administration has said it will convene a military family advisory board. I hope it includes a broad spectrum of families -- the spouses of staff sergeants, captains and lieutenant colonels. The situation is not sustainable. This is a conversation our military needs to have.
The writer is married to an Army lieutenant colonel. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.