Fifteen years ago, I fell in love with a Marine. I was young – really young.
I was an outspoken college student from a progressive family that spent dinner table conversations arguing politics and philosophy and ethics from the time I could form a sentence. I was a civics geek who volunteered at the polls when I was still in high school, and an activist who had been tear-gassed by the police before I was 18.
The military lifestyle was as foreign to me as Martian culture, but at the time I never gave it a second thought. I was young and in love, and I had no idea that if I wanted to be his partner in this life, I would have to sacrifice a vital part of myself.
Forfeiting My Voice
As a military spouse I have very little control over my life. I don’t have a say in where I live, or for how long I live there. Every time I move, I fight to convince prospective employers that I am worth the investment – that I will work myself to the bone, for less money than someone else, just to avoid more gaps in my employment history. My husband and I don’t have children, not because I don’t want them, but because I’m unwilling to raise them alone and we’ve spent more than two-thirds of our relationship apart.
This lifestyle is not easy and my story is not unique. But the truth is, I’m okay with it. Really.
In fact, I’m more than okay with it. I’ve thrived in this lifestyle.
I knew when I got married that I was going to move frequently and that my husband would spend months and years deployed. But I’m the independent sort who likes to travel alone and has an insatiable wanderlust. The frequent moves are a boon in my opinion. And although I’d prefer to share my adventures with my husband, I’m just fine with my dog. I’ve traveled the country and the world, been exposed to places I would never have seen otherwise, and met friends along the way who I will love for a lifetime.
Yes, my employment history has been a bit scattered. But I’ve had the chance to work as everything from a veterinary technician to a program manager for a startup non-profit, and I’d stack my life experience and work ethic against any corporate ladder climber. Maybe not my income, but as military families know, there are more important things than money.
As far as kids go, I’m quite a bit younger than my husband is, so I figure that we can wait until he’s close to retirement to start our family. In the meantime, I have the ability to pursue my own interests, to sleep in on the weekends, and to take off on a whim for another adventure without consulting school schedules. And let me tell you, I have taken full advantage of being child-free.
But none of these more common complaints is the sacrifice I’m talking about. I’m not concerned about my earning potential or our rolling stone existence. What I mean when I say that I’ve sacrificed a vital part of myself, is that for years I forfeited my voice.
A “Poor Reflection”
As a spouse, I am not subject to the Department of Defense Directive 1344 (which is basically the military version of the Hatch Act). But as any servicemember will tell you, there are official and unofficial channels of authority in the military, and to get promoted you must satisfy them equally. Although the military is supposed to be an apolitical institution, in reality, conservative members tend to speak their minds openly and frequently. This means that in order to satisfy certain unofficial channels of authority, progressive members often hide in the shadows.
I learned very quickly that the same was expected of progressive spouses, in case we “reflect poorly” on our servicemembers.
By training, I am a philosopher and an applied psychologist. I like to ask questions, and I love to debate. So I will never forget my first political debate with a servicemember – a man who was one of my husband’s colleagues and closest friends. Halfway through my counterpoint questioning the legitimacy of occupying a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, he abruptly told me to (and I quote), “Get back in your box and stay there.” He said this while drawing a square around my face with his pointer-fingers and then lightly tapping me on the forehead. The entire room erupted in laughter, and because at the time I was so young and didn’t know what else to do, I joined in. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but it’s the truth and the experience sent a very clear signal: My opinions, no matter how logically argued, were not welcome if they did not conform.
To his credit, my husband has never told me to watch what I say. But out of deference to him, and fear that my opinions would hinder his career, I’ve spent the last decade-and-a-half watching what I say. I have never lied about my political leanings, and all of my military friends know that I’m progressive, but until recently I suffered from a self-imposed disenfranchisement.
Until DisruptJ20 and the Women’s March on Washington, I hadn’t protested since my undergraduate days, even when I felt a true kinship with a cause. I refrained from correcting people, even when I heard them spouting obvious corporate-news disseminated propaganda, and the social scientist in me was screaming to demand they cite their source.
Until February of this year, I had never written a single Letter-to-the-Editor of any newspaper identifying myself as a military spouse. And until this last election cycle, as a married woman, I had not canvassed for a single political nominee.
All this in spite of the fact that before my marriage, I was an engaged activist who participated in multiple protests and canvassed for Ralph Nader before I was old enough to vote.
I changed who I was to fit who I thought I was supposed to be.
And why? Because I was worried that one of my husband’s bosses might be offended that I’m an environmentalist and a humanist and a dove. Because I was worried that the men who had the power to make or break his career, would be unable to understand that although I love the servicemember, I do not always love the mission.
And maybe that was unfair of me. Maybe I should have given them more credit. But the chilling effect that the unofficial channels of authority have on military family members is real. And although I was willing to be open about my progressive values, I was unwilling to engage in meaningful action to promote them. I didn’t want to be seen as any more of a “liberal nut” than I already was, so I chose conformity (to a degree) so as not be a stumbling block to my husband’s career.
And I know I’m not alone. I know that many military spouses feel this way.
Changing My Ways
This past year has changed me though. As I look around at the country I love, the country that my husband serves so faithfully, I am dismayed. Policies are being enacted by legislatures across the nation that discourage environmental and social justice. The drums of war beat yet again, and I’m scared that my husband will face combat for a sixth time. Americans are so divided that we can’t seem to have honest conversations about anything other than our pets anymore. And the power in this country is concentrated in so few corporations and individuals that wealth inequality threatens to destabilize our entire economy.
These problems are systemic – they did not happen overnight, and I will not lay them solely at the feet of Donald Trump or the Republicans. But the current administration is adding fuel to a fire that has been smoldering since the 1970s.
Today, like so many of us, I find myself at a crossroads. I can bury my head in the sand, or I can use my voice (small though it may be) to help quell that fire by actively advocating for justice. As Americans, we all face this choice. But it’s much harder for military families, even though we suffer disproportionately under policies that continue to keep us engaged in multiple undeclared wars.
After all, it’s our loved ones who fight and die in these battles.
So, I ask you: Will we – the ones with so much skin in the game – openly speak our minds, engage in protests, and denounce policies that we believe are counterproductive to American security? Will we – as Americans who prove our love for this country with every move and every deployment we endure – use our voices and our actions to stand in solidarity with the environment, the oppressed, and the impoverished? Will we – the families of the men and women who have pledged their lives to the Constitution – form the tip of the spear advocating for the freedom and liberty that this sacred document promises all of us? Will we – the spouses of the bravest men and women I know – be courageous enough to come out of the shadows and declare openly that we have progressive values and we’re willing to fight for them?
Or will we choose self-preservation through self-disenfranchisement?
I, for one, am no longer willing to wear a muzzle. As a military spouse, I recognize the impact my voice can have when I advocate for progressive causes. I’ll be honest. It’s scary sometimes. Very few people actually enjoy going against the grain. I don’t. It makes me lose sleep, and sometimes it causes arguments with my husband which makes me lose more sleep.
But at the end of the day, history will judge us. Regardless of what role I’m “supposed” to play as a military spouse, I intend to be counted on the side of justice.