Commentary by Col. Bill Rittershaus and Gina Rittershaus
50th Space Wing vice commander
Two years ago, my wife’s good friend called early one morning sobbing in relief; she just had to share. The previous morning she had received an e-mail from her husband, two months into his deployment, that contained only two words, “I’m fine.” Knowing it was a bad idea, she turned on the news to see the sensationalized account of unfolding events. Later that night, she lay in bed holding onto those two words, praying for her husband’s protection, and trying to calm her mind enough to sleep. It was in the midst of the quietness that only a sleepless night can bring when she heard the distinct sound of two car doors shutting just outside the front of her house. Without conscious thought, she grabbed her robe and hurriedly made her way downstairs. Her teenage son was still up at the kitchen table working on a school project, and she didn’t want him to be the one to open the door. While she felt a little silly once she realized her neighbors two doors down were having a party with late arrivals, it wasn’t until the next morning when she was able to Skype with her husband that she was able to truly feel peace.
I don’t know President Ronald Reagan’s direct motivations in 1984 when he proclaimed May 23 as Military Spouse Appreciation Day (later moved to the Friday before Mother’s Day). I can only assume it involved countless stories like this and the many other examples of courage, humor, fear, struggle, determination and independence we see every day from those with the inaccurate label “dependents.” As we just celebrated the 29th annual Military Spouse Appreciate Day last Friday, I can’t help but call attention to a few of the current challenges facing our military spouses.
The latest Military Family Lifestyle Survey conducted by Blue Star Families found that 84 percent of military spouses have at least some college with 25 percent holding bachelor’s degrees and 10 percent earning advanced degrees. These are well above national averages. However, the military spouse unemployment rate is currently 26 percent, more than three times the national average. Of the employed military spouses, approximately 62 percent rate themselves as “underemployed,” meaning they work in jobs well below their education and experience levels. Thanks to programs like the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, the military spouse unemployment rate is down from 38 percent just a few years ago. Yet, it is clear that frequent moves, often to locations with limited opportunities, still take a toll on military spouse success in the workforce.
Much attention has been placed on the rising number of active-duty men and women who commit suicide. In 2011, the Rand Corporation conducted the first and, to date, only complete study on military spouse depression/suicide. In 2012, Deborah Mullen, wife of Joint Chief Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, called attention to this study and its conclusion, “There are just too many (attempts) to be counted.” It is thanks to this study and her advocacy the military is now attempting to understand depression among military spouses caused by war, repeated separations, lack of consistent resources, and marital woes brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and caring for wounded warriors. The 2012 Military Family Life Survey found that 10 percent of its respondents had at least contemplated suicide, another 10 percent chose not to answer. Yet, military spouses often feel obligated to “put on a happy face” and “support the mission.”
But is it only the job of the military spouse to support the active-duty member’s mission? As I contemplate these two serious spouse challenges — from trying to raise children with the absence of one parent while living far away from family, to trying to navigate the medical system, to house hunting and moving/unpacking alone — I can’t help but recall a Pentagon study, which finds the two biggest issues impacting Airman retention are relationship status and spousal satisfaction.
Therefore, supporting our spouses is supporting our mission. I assert it should be a priority and part of our mission to show appreciation to our spouses every day of the year. Personally, I can’t do much directly to increase spousal employment or reduce depression, but I can make it my personal mission to support my wife in her own pursuits, whatever those goals may be.
As President Barack Obama aptly proclaimed last Friday, “Just as we are bound by a sacred obligation to care for our men and women in uniform, we are equally responsible for making sure their loved ones get the support they deserve.” After five states in eight years, four job changes, periods of unemployment, and my own long workdays, I need to make it part of my mission to go buy my wife some flowers.