Commentary: We need to stop treating military spouses like children

Independence Day celebrates the day America’s founding fathers put pen to paper and outlined the rights and beliefs that would form our values as a new nation. And, like most things patriotic, the Fourth of July has become inextricably linked with our nation’s armed forces.

A soldier from the 10th Mountain Division says goodbye to family members before boarding a flight to Afghanistan at Fort Drum, New York October 26, 2010. Picture taken October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: MILITARY) - RTXTW54

Independence Day also commemorates the beginning of a distinctly American set of cultural values, proudly displayed right in the holiday’s name. For centuries, as a country we have come to celebrate self-reliance, a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” national identity.

That’s why, as an Army spouse, on Independence Day and with all the self-sufficiency it extolls, I can’t help but be reminded of my own irksome designation within the military: I am my husband’s dependent.

Look up independent in a thesaurus and you will see words like strong or liberated — traits that we all aspire to. Look up dependent in adjective form, however, and you are likely to see words such as weak, helpless, debased and subordinate.

In the civilian world, dependent is typically used interchangeably with child. But in the military, spouses are designated as dependent regardless of whether they use military benefits or earn more than their spouse. Indeed, military spouses are classified in the same category as their children.

Dependent’s connotations are not only antithetical to those virtues we value most as a country, but they also feed into the worst kinds of stereotypes about military spouses and antiquated notions of homemakers. It harkens back to the image of spouses as leeches, feeding off their service member’s benefits and contributing little in return.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Military spouses are not unemployed because they want to live off government benefits. It’s because the challenges of military life make it difficult for them to find work. Frequent moves, licensing issues in new states, the costs of childcare and lost credits between school transfers often create the perfect storm of career barriers for military spouses.

It adds insult to injury when we face barriers to pursuing a career because of military life, and are then pigeon-holed as freeloaders, often by the very culture that created our reliance.

I have never met a military spouse who wasn’t strong. One cannot make it as a spouse without a strong streak of independence. Military spouses are alone much of the time. Through deployments, field exercises and training, spouses learn to be a picture of autonomous sufficiency.

When my husband was still deployed to Afghanistan, I flew to Texas alone to set up our house during our relocation to Fort Hood. A city girl moving from San Francisco, I had never been to Texas, or even obtained a driver’s license. Within a few months I had a car, a job and a network of desperately-sought friends. I’ve spent more Valentine’s Days commiserating with a fellow military spouse than I have with my own husband. Through four years as a couple, we have never celebrated either of our birthdays together.

Our country relies on the strength of its military spouses. Through the past 40 years, America has counted on military spouses to maintain the household and tackle childcare alone throughout frequent deployments and trainings. In fact, a 2011 RAND Corp. study estimated that the duties of post-9/11 caregivers, 33 percent of whom are spouses of the care recipients, can be estimated as worth close to $3 billion. Our government depends on spouses to step up to the plate when the going gets tough.

If spouses rely on anyone, it is often other spouses. Spouses can be counted on to throw baby showers for women they barely know, to raise money for the woman with surprise triplets on a private’s salary, to drive across town in the middle of the night to talk a fellow caregiver through a particularly rough week.

I cannot speak for male spouses, but I can imagine the connotations of the word dependent lend themselves to false stereotypes of reversed gender roles and masculinity, particularly for those spouses who assume primary domestic or childcare roles in order to support a female spouse’s career. This erroneous judgment must feel especially marked in a community that values traditional notions of masculinity as strongly as the armed forces.

There is also far less support available for male military spouses, who are often not included in wives’ organizations. Moves to military cities that revolve around bases can be isolating without a well-established niche in the military community. I can think of few others who must exhibit as much self-reliance as the male spouses of service members.

For all military spouses, words like “dependent” matter. In social work research, researchers carefully contemplate not only the usefulness of what we study, but the language with which we describe it. They often debate whether words like resilience, or even stigma can prejudice the populations they hope to more accurately understand.

This Independence Day, as we reflect on the members of the armed forces and their families, and what it means to defend and embody the spirit of this country, perhaps we can liberate ourselves from stereotypes and view spouses for what they truly are: Partners in a mission to keep the home fires burning, and the pace of our military at full speed.

About the Author

Jennifer Aronson is a U.S. Army spouse and program coordinator for the Veteran Spouse Network program at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.