I’ve been dating a naval submarine officer for over two years now. Let’s just call him Sam, as in Sam the Submariner. We’ll call whatever mighty craft he is sailing at the moment the U.S.S. Submarine, and we’ll call me Tammy, as in, Tammy the Turbulent one.
“Relational turbulence” is a word sometimes used by researchers studying military families to describe problems such as fighting, separation, and divorce among military couples—as though the difficulties that military families face are merely a disturbance to the order of battle, rocking the boat, so to speak. As a pun on that language, I’d like to use this blog to critique aspects of military culture and military policies that undermine human relationships--the long hours, the constant moves, and the presumption that partners believe in what the military does, to name just a few.
I don't love being in a relationship with a military officer. I love, however, being in a relationship with Sam. That Sam is devoted to what he does and to an organization that he sees as doing good in the world, that he responds to stress with grace, that his sense of adventure is limitless, are qualities that I have admired in him from the start. These are, in fact, strengths that Sam and I share, even if we apply them in different ways, to different causes.
This blog is a pressure valve to help me deal with the frustrations of military life, so that those frustrations are not taken out on Sam, who has his own legitimate reasons for choosing this path.
There are many blogs out there by women whose husbands and boyfriends are in the navy. The vast majority of these sites paint a picture of the spouses and significant others of service members as martyrs who sacrifice their own interests for a noble cause. Yet plenty of us have serious gripes about the way the navy treats us and the sailors we love:
Our partners’ 12-16 hour-days, in addition to one or two 24-hour periods spent on the boat each week;
No ability to predict our partners' work schedules, with periods at sea that get moved forward and backward by months with no notice. It is rarely us, but our partners, who determine when we have time together;
Greasy, sugar-laden food that sailors eat, sapping their energy and making some of them feel sick;
Little to no time allowed for sailors to get exercise, except, of course, for the rare token physical fitness test, scheduled at precisely the moments of time in port when sailors could be spending time with their families;
No systematic effort by the navy to make partners and spouses part of decisions that affect their entire families, such as frequent moves;
The presumption that partners will volunteer loads of time to support the military in collaboration with other spouses as part of the "military family," when in reality the only thing they may have in common with said spouses is shacking up with employees of the same workplace, and;
The inability to communicate with sailors for long periods of time. This is due as much to regular failures in the navy’s email system and lack of adequate phone access while the boat is in port, as to security reasons while the boat is at sea;
Among other issues.
Yet there are few settings where criticism is acceptable. I have mentioned some of my frustrations to the wives of senior officers, only to hear about my navy partner: "But he's doing so much for this country," implying, of course, that my complaint negates his hard work. A friend of mine, another wife of a naval officer, recently confided that she feels guilty expressing frustrations about her husband's long hours and demanding job even to her own mother: "I worry that anything other than pride or sadness would be perceived as unpatriotic and unsupportive," she said.
My friend is not wrong. For example, a guidebook entitled "Guidelines for the Spouses of Commanding Officers and Executive Officers" written by Naval Services FamilyLine, one of the navy's closely related volunteer groups, warns, "Be positive. Whether you are discussing people, the command, the area you live in, or military life in general, speak positively or just say nothing." Oh my. Now there is a way to model American freedom from the ground up.
Countless voices, from navy promotional brochures, commanding officers' speeches, and comments from the more self-righteous spouses of sailors, to the constant refrain from civilians, “Thank you for your service,” to Memorial Day Facebook posts that thank veterans for “protecting freedom” rather than using it as an opportunity to consider the costs that military families pay for its policies, leave little room for criticism. After all, what asshole wouldn't want people to protect freedom? Even the language Americans use to talk about the military undermines conversation. These voices say: service members and the military are beyond reproach.
How have we come to a point where it is unacceptable to be critical of the military? What are the frustrations of service members' partners? These are questions I explore in this blog.
This blog is a way to put another insider voice out there about the challenges and frustrations of military life, so that the only stories are not those of praise for the military and its policies towards families and the people who serve in it. If there is one thing that my background as an activist has taught me, it is that a foundation for any change is a public conversation containing multiple voices, and not just one.
If it can be believed, this post is a trimmed down version of the original. A concerned friend told me if I didn't put a check on my wordiness, I'd have trouble keeping readers. Soon I will expand on details I included in the original post: mandatory navy dinners at the worst possible times, monopolized by self-congratulatory speeches and insider jokes among the officers; expectations that spouses contribute vast amounts of time, energy, and money to support the officers, with no reciprocal effort from the latter; and class bias among officers' families, who sometimes speak of "enlisted" sailors and their families as a different kind of person, among other topics. More on all of this soon.