They pull up stakes every two or three years, leaving behind friends, schools and -- for some wives -- successful careers. When they come to rest again at a new base, they must put together a household on a meager salary, scout out decent schools, and put up with the occasional scorn of civilian neighbors.
Such is the lot of the military family, and until recently, top brass never seemed to worry how families coped with this way of life. Wives and children were expected to be good soldiers too, following a man in uniform wherever he was sent.
Attitudes are beginning to change, though, as military officials recognize that family happiness is a key factor in their ability to keep a man or woman in the armed forces.
One sign of this new outlook was visible at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington last week, where the Air Force brought 400 members and spouses from bases around the world for a two-day conference on the problems of military families and what the Air Force can do to help. A similar symposium for Army families is scheduled for Oct. 10 and 11 in the Stouffer's National Center Hotel in Arlington.
"This is the first time in any real way that we've recognized the family as an important part of the Air Force," Maj. Jim Cochran, deputy assistant director of the year-old Air Force Family Matters office, said at last week's conference.
"Prior to this time we looked at the family as an appendage of the member. We took care of the member and the member took care of his family," Cochran said. "But those days are past. Our families have a stronger voice in what the member does. If a family becomes dissatisfied with the Air Force, we lose a member."
Although the delegates to the Air Force gathering were handpicked by leaders at the 124 bases they represented, many were openly critical of military life. The chief complaint, which Air Force leaders also heard at a similar conference last year in San Antonio, was that salaries are too low.
Basic pay for an Air Force recruit is $501 a month, plus $120 a month for food and a $179 monthly housing allowance for dependents, said Tech. Sgt. Ron Weston, a public affairs officer at Bolling. It's often a strain to make ends meet on $800 a month, especially in the Washington area, delegates and Air Force officials agreed.
"In Washington, the biggest problem is the high cost of living. The housing allowance doesn't come close to what's needed and many guys are working second jobs," said Capt. John Lundin, who is chaplain with the Family Matters office. Lundin, who formerly served at Andrews Air Force Base near Camp Springs, said economic pressures in this area force many Andrews-based spouses to work, and many enlisted personnel moonlight at gas stations and grocery stores.
Moving hassles ran a close second to salaries on the "worry lists" of many delegates. They called for more generous reimbursement of moving expenses, higher weight allowances for household goods and Air Force-paid house-hunting trips.
Other concerns voiced at the conference: a need for more child care, better medical and dental insurance for dependents, and programs to educate civilians about military life.
Medical and dental care pose problems because military hospitals treat dependents on a space-available basis, so families often must turn to private doctors and hospitals, Cochran explained. Government health insurance does not fully reimburse these expenses. Neither does it cover any dental bills, although the only Air Force dentists are those stationed where there are no civilian dentists.
Another recurring complaint was that of civilian attitudes. Said Wanda McDowell, wife of an Air Force sergeant stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Tex., "You hear comments that you don't pay taxes, you get free housing and you have that fantastic commissary." Not only do military families pay taxes and housing costs, McDowell said, but many of the fringe benefits, such as low-cost shopping, are not as generous as outsiders believe.
As one answer to the concerns voiced at last week's meeting and at the 1980 conference in San Antonio, Cochran said, Air Force officials already are pushing for wages comparable to those paid workers in private business and industry. A military pay raise is scheduled for Oct. 1, but the amount has not yet been determined. The Senate has passed a sliding scale of increases ranging from 7 to 22 percent; House-passed legislation authorizes an across-the-board, 14.3 percent raise for all military personnel.
The Family Matters office also has mounted a campaign for increased moving allowances, Cochran said.
A major program planned by the Air Force, Cochran said, is establishment of family support centers, which will coordinate information on mental health, medical care, jobs, financial management and other family services at each base.
This fall the Air Force is opening experimental family support centers at two U.S. bases and two overseas stations. By 1987, if the first centers are successful, the Air Force hopes to establish branches at each of its 124 major installations, Lundin said.
Another Air Force program being tested in the Washington area is an employment service. The Air Force's first Military Spouse Skills and Resource Center, opened at Bolling in July, is for the use of any Air Force spouse living in metropolitan Washington, including civilian husbands of Air Force women, who comprise less than 1 percent of all Air Force spouses.
"They decided to do it because there's such a crying need for job information," said Nancy Greer Hamilton, director of the center, who learned about the need for such a service from her own experience as an Air Force wife.
"Before we came here I knew I had to have a job to make the house payments. But I was in Montgomery, Ala., and there's no way I could find out about jobs up here," she said, adding that one of her goals is to establish a worldwide, computerized job bank that could give transferring spouses information about work opportunities at any base.
The need for the job center is particularly acute in Washington, where the high cost of living is a major reason that 70 percent of Air Force spouses in this area work, compared with 52 percent worldwide, Hamilton said.