When a Peacenik Becomes a Military Spouse
Twenty-six years ago, my then-boyfriend told me he had been accepted to the United States Air Force Academy. I was perplexed. Having family from Colorado, I had visited the Academy as a tourist and learned those who attended it were called "cadets." However, I had no idea it was an accredited four year university. In fact, I was under the impression it was a four year technical college run by the Army.
I recall saying something to my boyfriend along the lines of, "You're the valedictorian of your class; don't you want to go to a real university? A place you can earn an actual degree? Otherwise you'll be spending four years doing this Academy thing, and still not have much to show for it. Other than some sort of Army certificate."
He stared at me in stunned silence, and after a brief pause tried to persuade me to believe he had actually been accepted into a prestigious university, that the United States Air Force Academy is a highly competitive school.
"My parents are both Ivy League professors. If this Academy thing was so prestigious, don't you think they would have told me that at some point?"
He sighed deeply, and then said, "Well, I got a Presidential Nomination, and my parents can't afford any other university, so this is where I'll be going." Disappointed did not even come close to covering my response. I accused him of throwing away his life to join the Army. Seriously. I did.
You see, back then, I was completely unaware of there being separate branches of the military. I called it all, "the Army." And in my world, people who joined the Army, did not go to college. Nope, according to my upbringing, these Army men (because I didn't have a clue women served in the military) had barely graduated high school and had no direction in life. M*A*S*H* was a program I enjoyed largely because I was crushing like a madwoman on Hawkeye Pierce, and I strongly suspect I was under the impression Stripes was based on fact.
Did this make me a snob? Yes. But I grew up surrounded by people who thought as I did. Especially my Jewish friends and family. There really weren't a hell of a lot of Jews who joined the military. As for my own family? My parents never spit on any soldiers, nor did they ever refer to anyone as being baby killers, but they did attend anti-Vietnam rallies, they did protest the war. George Carlin's conclusion that "Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity" is something my entire family could support easily. Joan Baez and Tom Lehrer records played in our living room. If Pete Seeger was playing in a 50 mile radius, you could bet we'd be sitting on a blanket listening while pot smoke from our neighboring blanketeers wafted over our family.
While it is true my mother graduated from Brandeis with Abbie Hoffman, and in grad school she belonged to Students For a Democratic Society with Tom Hayden, it is also true my father refused to go to Woodstock because he thought parking would be a pain-in-the-ass. When my non-Jewish-cadet-boyfriend and I became engaged, my parents were far more freaked out about me becoming an Army wife. Not Jewish? No one seemed to notice that, but the military thing? OY!
I'll be the first to admit I was thankful my undergrad degree was in cultural anthropology. The military culture was so different from anything I had experienced before. I became a participant observer, and for 22 years, no one ever suggested I punch out. My husband certainly had colleagues who described his wife as "refreshing."
But it wasn't just all about me. There are certain aspects of military life that are vastly different than those of a civilian. For one, the people who work with your spouse may also socialize with you and your spouse. My favorite example of how social and occupational life collide on a military installation involved the time I attended a Military Dining Out with my husband. Directly across from me sat the gynecologist I had seen the previous week for my annual exam. As is the protocol, introductions were made and upon hearing the name of the doctor I said, "Oh, it's great to see you again!" She looked puzzled. I offered, "If I put my feet up on the table, I may look familiar." She laughed hysterically, my husband looked absolutely mortified. Pretense was never my middle name, but I still considered myself to have a penchant for protocol. While I would never consider myself "arm candy" I did understand my proper place. Which sounds so "old fashioned" but military tradition is as old as Jewish tradition. I was a natural at Tradition! Tradition!
For as many times as I feared feeling out of place because I came from "Peace, Love, Freedom, Happiness" roots, I would learn to decipher other people's non-verbal communication and find my tribe so to speak. Still not a Jewish tribe, necessarily, more like a Tribe of Democrats. If I were in a group of people and someone was talking about George Bush, all I had to do was quickly scan the group and find the folks with their arms crossed over their chest. BINGO! That person voted for Clinton.
As we began our military life, and me the wife of a Butter Bar, I recall lamenting at a squadron barbecue about how I might be "the only person who came from a Lefty upbringing." A Colonel's wife grinned big and said, "Oh Devra, every place you go, you will find you are not alone. You will find a great diversity in the military and the spouses. You will always find someone who is a lot like you." And dammit, she turned out to be absolutely correct. Sure there were the lousy times like when my husband's selection party was scheduled on Yom Kippur and the a-hole in charge would not change the date. Needless to say, we did not attend the party. But then the pendulum would swing the other way. I'd see the Chanukkah decorations hanging in the Squadron or my husband would come home to tell me he had been taken off the week's flight schedule because his commander told him to "celebrate Passover with your wife."
Believe it or not, I think it is my hippy, dippy, lippy background that helped me learn to accept there would be certain aspects of my husband's career that would mean he would be away for months at a time and he might get shot down in an airplane. No one I grew up with ever romanticized being in the military, or made light of what it meant to be "at war."
When I became a military spouse (AKA milspouse), I quickly realized the way I perceived my husband's responsibility to our country was not necessarily the case for some of my husband's co-workers who had married on the conservative side. Their spouses seemed to have the most difficulty as they had focused on being married in peace time. Quite a few of these folks truly felt as if they had been baited and switched when the war kicked off in the early 90's and we all wound up serving on the homefront. Eventually we all figured it out and supported one another, regardless of our backgrounds. We all knew we needed one another as much as Maverick needed Goose.
To some degree, I am actually very surprised by my own ability to manage as a milspouse, considering I had once believed very strongly that I had almost nothing in common with "those people." Well, something I've definitely learned in the past 20 years is that "those people" are my people. And some of "those people" are bloggers, like me, you may know, but not realize, have a military connection.