upstate New York parking lot:
I felt my friend’s reaction perfectly captured how military culture reduces women’s identities to their marriages, their connection to one of the armed forces, and their government utility as the built-in caretakers who follow where service members go: “I like how it’s not just that her individual identity is doubly subsumed, but that she is, in fact, transformed into transferrable government property!”
I wonder if the owner of the bumper sticker put it there with a sense of pride in her sacrifice. Or if she did so with the sense of sarcasm that I hope she did.
Those of you who read “Military moves…” know that I have been thinking about how DOD policies paint service members’ partners as passive objects along for the ride, so much that the latter are not even informed of—or included in—decisions that determine where their partners move and when. In another stroke of fantastic luck, Sam’s date of transfer to his next job, which had unexpectedly been moved a month earlier a few weeks ago, was moved a month later yet again—to the date the navy originally named.
How did things change again? After Sam and I began operating under the assumption that we would be moving in November rather than December, Sam called the guy who makes the decisions about job placements and reminded him that by official navy regulations he is unable to transfer before December. Whoops! The decision-making-guy responded. Sam got yet another set of orders, the ones that currently stand.
Why did this happen? As with many things in the navy, it happened for an avoidable reason. The office that mails official orders and the guy who actually selects officers’ placements do not always check with one another as they finalize details. Accordingly, Sam got a letter with the wrong date. These careless mistakes have the effect of creating a deep sense of instability and stress, as mentally and logistically, you scramble to adjust multiple full lives to a new timeline.
Numerous factors, including poor communication by military personnel with one another and military families; the language of military documents; and the everyday practices of military families reinforce our assumptions that wives and children are to be moved around at service members' discretion. Take, for example, an excerpt from this navy form letter to newly assigned service members, which reads:
“If you plan to move your family to this area, I recommend you contact the Naval District Washington Housing office….If you elect not to move your family….”
It is exactly these subtle, repeated turns of phrase that reinforce families’ subordinate status. They certainly don’t help.
On the contrary, if the military were interested in empowering its families and reinforcing service members’ respect for their partners’ agency, they would user letters like these to emphasize that decisions like moves are mutual.
That military families consider service members without wives as in need of assistance with domestic tasks is another strong indicator of the helpmate/follower role we assume women to play. When Sam was stationed at a different base before we met, the wives of other officers used to bring him casseroles because they worried that he would go hungry without a woman to cook for him. Likewise, his boat’s current “Family Readiness Group” arranged for “single” (read: unmarried) sailors to receive care packages of groceries upon their return home from deployment. Never mind that some of them, Sam included, are perfectly adept at shopping and cooking for themselves, and for their partners who might be the ones who need nurturing after scrambling into town in time for their return.
As well-meaning family and friends shake their heads at the sacrifices I will make as a “navy wife,” I’d like to make one thing clear. After the move I will make with Sam in December, I am staying put. It is our mutual understanding that Sam, as the one who has chosen this career that has him moving every 2-3 years, will revolve geographically around me and our children for the next few years, and not the other way around. Will this be hard? You bet. But we’ve each had harder things to deal with. What’s more, one of the reasons why Sam asked me to marry him is because he knows I have goals of my own, and it would be professionally and emotionally debilitating if I were to up and go to every place he gets sent to.
It is true that this decision will present its own complications, not the least of which is judgment by other military families for your choices. But check out this affirming but honest online discussion among women and men whose families have made that choice, led by a woman who hilariously calls her navy husband “He of the Sea.” At least, it presents staying put as no crappier than the other crappy choice the military leaves families.
As for those who assume that constant relocations by family members is best: Just pull a few military wives and moms aside, away from one another’s censoring gaze, and ask them how they and their kids are doing as daddy comes and goes without warning, in communities that are unfamiliar to them. I guarantee their responses will complicate the assumption that military families should relocate together.
Why, then, after mercilessly unpacking a three-word “army wife” bumper sticker, do I insist on using the term “navy girlfriend” as a title for this blog? I use the term
ironically, as a starting point for highlighting just how loaded and fraught with problematic assumptions our treatment of military families is. When Sam and I marry, I will be a walking example of a mouthy, irreverent navy wife, charting my own complicated course alongside my husband, rather than sitting in the back of the boat and massaging his shoulders while he steers.