One June day four years ago, an overseas call came from Japan and Janet Loomis' relatively happy, simple world was shuttered.
Her husband, Richard, a communications specialist with the Navy, told her he wanted a divorce.
Two days before what would have been their 25th wedding anniversary the divorce was final, and Janet Loomis began picking up the pieces of a life that had been spent traveling the globe in support of her husband's career.
"My work for all those years was raising children and following him wherever he went," she says, recalling the years the family lived in Spain and Morocco, and at many stateside Navy bases.
She remembers packing up their four children and their belongings for a 27-hour bus trip to join her master chief (E9) husband in Maine. She recalls all the nights spent worrying about how the children would adapt to new schools and homes each time her husband was transferred.
Richard Loomis, 48, has remarried and is stationed in Spain. Janet Loomis, 47, lives with two of their adult children and a son-in-law in a Cape Cod-style house in Waldorf, which she received as part of the divorce settlement. She is also receiving alimony, but does not want to reveal how much.
"It amounts to about one-third of what i'm used to living on," she says, adding that she would have to "budget down to the quarter" if the children did not help to pay some bills."
The children pay half the household expenses and buy two-thirds of the food.
"It would be quite rough (without them)," she says. "I would never be able to have any niceties and it would be hamburger every night."
"Niceties," she said, means being able to buy materials on sale so she can make her own clothes.
Janet Loomis says she would like to work, but her health prevents it. She is nearly blind in one eye and has asthma, arthritis and colitis. Since her divorce, she has had surgery twice for the colitis, the last operation resulting in the loss of half her intestine. Together, the operations cost $16,000.
Like other former military wives who are divorced, Janet Loomis lost all the military medical benefits she once took for granted. Unlike many other wives, because she was still young, she was able to get a low-coverage medical insurance policy and Medicaid funds to help pay the bills. She still owes $1,600, which she is paying off at the rate of $20 a month -- all she can afford, she says.
And, as with other ex-wives, the divorce meant she could no longer be named beneficiary of her former husband's military life insurance policy. But, she said, she persuaded him to take a physical to qualify for a small life insurance plan she took out on him.
All in all, she says, she feels lucky because some ex-wives of military career men fare much worse.
Loomis is one of an estimated 150,000 former military wives who, upon divorce, find themselves disenfranchised from the comforts and security of an organization they say demanded and extracted as much from them as their spouses.
When they are cut off from their husbands -- generally in mid-life and after 20 or more years of marriage -- they also are cut off from all military medical and life insurance benefits and all the privileges that made life a little more bearable -- cut-rate shopping in the post exchange (PX) and commissary and recreational facilities.
In many cases, they are denied a share of the husband's pension by courts that do not consider pensions part of a family's assets when property is divided in the divorce settlement.
They are often deemed too old or too ill to get civilian medical insurance, and the nomadic background of military life brands them poor employment risks. It is rare that a military wife can hang into a job for the 20 or more years needed to build her own pension.
"When our husbands were on active duty," says Nancy Abell, president of Ex-Partners of Servicemen for Equality (EXPOSE), an organization formed to lobby Congress on behalf of former military wives, "we were pretty much told, 'You support this man, make sure he's happy for the good of the country and we'll take good care of you -- all your benefits, your medical coverage, the retirement check that will be coming in at the end of his career.' That's sort of held up as the pot of gold. But, of course, what they never pointed out along the way was that if the marriage ended up in divorce, you'd be left without any of these benefits."
What particularly galls many military ex-wives is that if their former husbands remarry, the new wives qualify for all the special benefits even though the new spouse may have contributed nothing to the husband's career.
"We feel we've really worked for our country, too," says Abell, a Falls Church resident. "And for us to be left out in the cold at the end of 20 or 25 or 30 years and have everything handed to another woman on a silver platter, leaving us with nothing is a very unfair situation." w
"We have women on welfare, women getting food stamps, women with no medical coverage who have had heart attacks or have cancer," adds Abell, who is separated from her husband of 26 years, a retired Air Force colonel.
"And this is the way our country has rewarded all these years of service. Granted we weren't in the military ourselves, but those men could not have performed their jobs and defended this country without the help of these women. This is what we're trying to put across to [the Defense Department]. We have earned these benefits -- not the wife who comes after he's retired."
EXPOSE has gained considerable moral support from the National Military Wives Association, an organization that assists and informs military dependents of their rights, privileges and benefits. Rosemary Locke, NMWA president, said the organization strongly believes military retirement pay and life insurance protection are part of a couple's shared wealth, and that spouses should not lose military medical benefits upon divorce or death after a marriage of 10 or more years.
Congressional efforts are being made to assist former military wives.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) has said she will reintroduce a bill to grant prorated retirement pay and survivor annuities to divorcees who were married to servicemen at least 10 years.
The legislation, Schroeder has said, is "based on the premise that, among other things, marriage is an economic partnership and the spouse makes a significant contribution to the military employe's ability to successfully go through the ranks and consequently receive a pension."
Other legislation expected to be reintroduced would authorize the military to pay an ex-spouse court-awarded shares of a serviceman's retirement pay and extend medical benefits to ex-spouses who were married to servicemen for 20 years or longer.
The Defense Department has opposed the medical-benefits proposal, claiming it would cost $45 million a year. Comdr. John Wanamaker and Capt. Henry Palau, legislative counsels for The Retired Officers Association (TROA), said their 283,000-member organization has taken no stand on the medical benefits plan or on proposals that a serviceman be allowed to name his ex-wife as the beneficiary of the Survivors Benefit Plan. But the organization opposes mandatory sharing of pensions and also is against the direct payment of alimony and child support by the service branch.
Courts should be able to use their discretion on pensions, says Wanamaker, adding that while there have been injustices to ex-wives, "some husbands made general in spite of their wives."
"A man has an obligation to support a spouse and children and even his former spouse," adds Palau, who is also TROA's legal counsel. "Our problem is not with support, but with automatic distribution formulas [set by law]."
EXPOSE, which has about 300 members nationwide, counters that federal help is needed because state laws vary and ex-wives have considerable difficulty tracking their former husbands from state to state. They also note that while a military paycheck can be garnisheed for alimony and child support, collecting is a time-consuming and costly process.
Winnie Cowan, vice president of EXPOSE, was married 37 years to an Army officer who eventually retired at the rank of brigadier general. She says, "It used to be that a military man would never divorce because it could go against his record and ruin his career. But with the introduction of no-fault divorce and the changing attitudes of society, the military man is going along as well as the rest of the population."
Even when alimony is awarded, she notes, alimony ceases when the former husband dies. So without some guarantee of income from the former Survivor Benefits Plan, there is little assistance for the military divorce.
"In most cases, courts don't compensate the military wife for the loss of all these benefits," she adds.
It is argued, she continues, that the ex-wives can always draw Social Security when and if the husbands retire and draw on it. But, Cowan says, such income is meager and amounts to a startling decline in the ex-wife's standard of living.
"We are a rare breed of women which is rapidly fading," Cowan says as she fields telephone calls from other military wives across the country, who are shocked when they discover the benefits they are about to lose. "Women whose husbands are in the military now should stop and think. If they're planning on those benefits, they better think twice, because they're not going to get anything if they're divorced."
Abell, who has been working with Cowan on an EXPOSE newsletter, says: "(The military) deliberately keeps women in the dark about what happens because, naturally, if they did know, they wouldn't follow all these men all over the place.
"They're having a hard time retaining young officers because women have their own careers now, and when they find out what's happening at the end of the road, they're not willing to give up their careers and follow these men all over. The whole caliber of the military is going to change."
(For more information about EXPOSE, write P.O. Box 3269, Falls Church, Va. 22043, or call 530-1236 or 365-7152. For additional information on the National Military Wives Association, write 4405 East West Hwy., Suite 401, Washington, D.C. 20014, or call (301) 652-6379.)