The story has a classic edge to it. A tale of Anywife who was told and believed that her marriage was a partnership. A tale of Anywife who later heard her "partner" swear in a divorce court that all the money he earned was his, and she didn't deserve a nickel of it.
The only thing different about the current version is that this time it's the military giving lip service in marriage and disservice in divorce.
But let me go back a bit.
Almost a year ago now, the Supreme Court ruled that the prized military pension, the reward for 20 years of duty, could no longer be considered a part of family assets to be divvied up in case of divorce.
The court said that Congress had intended military pensions to go only to the person who was enlisted. "The plight of an ex-spouse of a retired service member is often a serious one," the justices wrote, but unless Congress changed the law, the pension belonged to him (usually a him) and him alone.
Since then, there have been no less than eight bills filed in Congress by bedfellows as strange as conservative Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa) and liberal Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.). Next Friday, Jepsen will chair the fourth and last of the Senate hearings on bills all designed to provide more protection for divorced military spouses.
But in step with our partnership fable, the opponents of these bills are none other than the armed forces. The brass from land, sea and air are expected to testify in full combat gear.
These folk are part of the same organizations that write endless odes to military wives in their Family Manuals. In San Diego, even the grocery bags bear the message: "The Navy Wife . . . the toughest job in the Navy! We want to keep the good families in."
Furthermore, any one of these officers can, I am sure, sympathetically list the special problems of the wives who often hold these good families together.
At the lowest level, the pay scale makes it necessary for most of them to work and the mobility makes it impossible for most of them to build a career. Only 13 percent ever have their own pension plans. At the middle level, there is often an overt or subtle expectation for wives to do extensive volunteer work for the military. Indeed "wife grades" often appear on their husbands' records.
Suzanne Davis, a longtime Navy wife and current head of the National Military Wives Association puts it succinctly: "You can be asked not to work (in order to) support your husband's career, asked to be sole nurturer of children for long periods of time when your husband is away, asked to live in some pretty unsavory places, asked to put the military first ahead of yourself and your children. Then at the end, if you're divorced, the military says you have no right to any part of it. It's a slap in the face."
The Pentagon position is, need I tell you, slightly different. The Department of Defense maintains that they need this pension as a perk to keep re- enlistment up. Citing some highly suspect figures--senators are still trying to find the source--they said that thousands would drop out before retirement if their pot of pension gold had to be shared with ex-spouses.
But here, the military doesn't even have a grip on its own self-interest. All the branches know that the key to re- enlistment right now is the attitude of a spouse, not the existence of an ex- spouse. It is the wife who cannot help being affected by the attitude portrayed in Divorce, Army Style.
Rosemary Locke, legislative chair of NMWA, explains: "There are so many pressures now on the military family to get out. The career army is a married army. About 75 to 80 percent of those at the four-year level are married. What are they going to say to women about the benefits of supporting their husband's career?"
The former military partner doesn't just part with her pension. The proposals before Congress also deal in one way or another with her lost survivor and medical benefits. But any bill that comes out of committee is likely to at least give divorced military wives the same pension rights as the Foreign Service or the Civil Service.
In the meantime, if you have the Pentagon for a partner, it's time to read the fine print on the military marriage contract.