What’s more, Sam’s navy lifestyle compliments my own lifestyle in ways. He travels a lot, and so do I. Similar to me, Sam gets what it means to have a long-distance relationship as he has been having them with family and friends his entire adult life. We are consequently great communicators with one another.
Here’s the kicker: It is not enough to like these things about Sam’s job. Women in
relationships with service members are expected to support the military--ideologically and in terms of their time and professional sacrifices.
One spring day, I was shopping with two friends who are partners of guys on Sam’s boat. We were talking about our futures, and I said that Sam would likely stay in the navy. One friend, Renee, said forebodingly, “Ready to be the captain’s wife?”
My stomach tightened with anxiety for both Sam and I. Renee was referencing the fact that the higher your partner’s status, the more the military expects of you in his career. Especially if you’re a girl. (How many men does the navy photograph waving flags and holding babies as they welcome sailors home?) The spouses of incoming captains and second-in-commands even receive invitations to attend leadership trainings--invitations that are embedded, strikingly, in their husbands' official orders.
Even at this stage in my relationship with Sam, I have been asked variously by the other partners, Sam, and even Sam’s family to:
Cook for dinners among families on the boat;
Purchase items and create care packages for officers to take to sea;
Represent officers’ families in the boat’s volunteer organization, the Family Readiness Group;
Donate to fundraisers for everything from the boat’s homecoming celebrations to the college educations of other service members’ children;
Be a public face of the military with Sam, appearing in the navy’s photographs next to weapons;
Cheer with the other spouses when the boat returns from sea;
Spend time with all the other partners and spouses without Sam.
When I told Sam that I would not volunteer my time with the navy, he was forced to repeatedly explain my noninvolvement to confused colleagues.
Women’s ideological and practical support is the navy’s “normal.” It isn’t for nothing that we call partners of service members “milspouses,” “navy girlfriends” or “navy wives.” In contrast, Sam does not carry an adjective next to his name to describe his indirect affiliation with my workplace.
If you prefer not to have a relationship with military families, there are also pragmatic consequences: You lose the ability to know the dates your partner returns from being at sea, as it is spouses and partners who communicate this information among themselves. If you’re not married to the service member you love, and you want to attend events on base and meet him when he comes home, then you have to latch on to one of the spouses who can escort you.
To many, the forms of involvement I’m mentioning may seem insignificant. But if you are being coopted into an organization with which you have serious moral qualms, these expectations can feel oppressive. It is not unlike if you were a Jew, Muslim, or atheist being evangelized to by Christians who ask you to cook for their church picnic, pray with them in Jesus’s name, and list your name as a parishioner in their newsletter, not to mention periodically passing you the offering plate—despite differences in belief.
I am a pacifist, and the military, for me, is about state-sponsored violence. While Sam talks about missiles and submarines with the same sense of duty that an eagle scout might talk about the gear he uses to lead scouts into the wilderness, I, upon watching Sam point to a freshly painted missile used to adorn the roads of his base, which he mentions is the same type used to attack Iraq, recall media images of bloodied civilians and children missing limbs.
When I receive hysterically punctuated e-mails from women in the boat’s spouses’ group, entreating me to assemble boxes of goodies for deployed sailors who are “doing one of the most important jobs in the world!! keeping us safe!” I think, really? After a decade of military interventions that have had questionable implications for global security, I do not take for granted that the military keeps us safe. Give me some information on what these guys are doing, and let me make an independent judgment. Otherwise don't use me to promote your cause.
Spouses who serve as the optimistic, proud public face of the military are essential in legitimatizing its activities. I choose not to participate in that, but from the start, everyone assumed that I would want to.
I am a part of the day-to-day aspects of the military effort, given the work of sustaining long periods without contact or Sam’s support, living with Sam in places where I have no community, and wrestling with my own demanding work schedule so that my vacations coincide with the ever-shifting slivers of time when Sam is available.
I do this because I love and support Sam, trust that he has his own legitimate reasons for supporting the military, and want him to succeed. But supporting the military ideologically? Nope.
Sam, for his part, loves me precisely for my refusal to compromise my beliefs. He also does not want to be called anyone’s American hero, or for me to give up my career so he can pursue his.
I don’t judge those of us who want to be a part of the military; I admire their toughness and dedication. I do judge the assumption that everyone wants to extend this support, and in the same ways.
This assumption hurts service members as well. What of sailors who do not want partners in these support roles, in an organization where spouses’ willingness to volunteer can influence service members’ promotions?
What about women or gay service members, who are less likely than their heterosexual, male counterparts to find partners who will constantly relocate, sacrifice careers, and care for children alone?
The consequences of a military that treats volunteerism as the default role for partners is systematic exclusion of unconventional service members and their families from meaningful, dignified engagement with military communities—engagement on their own terms.