By Sarah Smiley
I have sometimes had a love-hate relationship with the military. After 34 years as a dependent (I was born while my dad was on a 7-month deployment), this seems reasonable to me. Not everyone agrees. Military wives (forget the politically correct “spouse;” I’m a wife) should be selfless, upbeat and totally devoted to their husband’s career. Wearing flag-motif socks and earrings is extra credit. It’s the old atta-girl mentality. Complaining about military life is as socially unacceptable (perhaps even more so) than openly declaring that you didn’t vote for Obama.
But the truth is that more times than not, being a military wife involves hard work and sacrifice, and very few rewards (the tangible, selfish kind). Worst of all, being a modern-day woman and married to a military man at the same time is becoming increasingly difficult. Gone is the day when a military wife’s job was to throw fantastic parties and make her husband look good. In its place is the expectation that a military wife throw fantastic parties, make her husband look good, and have a career, raise children (possibly homeschool them), further her own education, be well informed, and never (not ever) complain. We are 21st-Century women trapped within the confines of a 1950s mentality. When your husband moves, you move with him. When your husband has goals, you support them. When you have goals of your own, you shut up and smile.
And yet most military wives will tell you that they love the military and its lifestyle. They aren’t lying. Enter the love-hate relationship. In 2005, the New York Times magazine ran a feature about me (“Confessions of a Military Wife,” November 1, 2005), In it, the reporter nailed my complex feelings about the military when she wrote this:
“Somewhere between [Smiley’s] enforced military cheer and the recurring urge to smash it, Smiley retains a child’s wish, as strong and steady as a heartbeat, that the military, in which she grew up, knows best. She wrestles with her fervent hopes that it will protect her and her family, even as she suspects it may not. Although she is not in the military, she is of it; it represents her entire life’s experience, and she defends it as fiercely as she doubts it.”
I have given many years to the military. I’ve moved for it, planned a wedding around it, put my career on hold for it, and even planned childbirth around it. My entire life–from where I shop to which doctor I see to the zip code on my mailing address–has been coordinated by the military.
Last year, however, I started on a path all my own. I went back to school to pursue my masters and doctorate. It was a dangerous decision. “What if Dustin is transferred?” people asked. “Will you quit school to move with him?” This was always said with a subtle, incredulous tone that read between the lines, “Of course you will move with him because you are a good military wife.
I ignored the question as doggedly as I avoided any conversation with Dustin that included the words “transfer,” “move” or “our next assignment.” My eyes were on my own prize and I could not be sidetracked by my husband’s commitment to the military. If that sounds selfish, consider that for eleven years, my husband pursued his dream without being distracted by mine
For more than a decade, I submitted to the military and its plans for us without thinking because there was no other choice. Dustin was committed for a predetermined number of years to payback the government for his education at the United States Naval Academy and, later, flight school in Pensacola, Fla. That commitment has come to an end. There is nothing holding Dustin to the military now except for his own personal commitment to our country. (Being within 6 years of retirement doesn’t hurt either.)
Next year, Dustin’s tour in Bangor, Maine, will come to an end. Uncle Sam will move him to a new assignment in a different city and state, and I have chosen to stay behind until he gets out or retires and joins us in Maine again.
This is unthinkable to many civilians, and indeed, a good amount of military wives, too, all of whom will believe I’m putting Dustin in an impossible situation, that I am, in some way, doing something to him. Yet, I have not asked Dustin to get out of the military. Nor have I asked him to give up on his personal commitment. In fact, I have required nothing of him at all. I cannot ask Dustin to abandon his plans any more than he should ask me to forfeit mine. Still, as far as I know, no one has said to him, “A good husband would stay behind with his wife.”