June 23, 2018
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‘All-volunteer’ service is not what it seems

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

I am committed to making sure this column does not become a yearlong rant about the ups and downs of having my husband deployed, but reactions to my Occupy column bring up common military-spouse conundrums: Do military families think they are owed something because of their sacrifices? And can you even call it a “sacrifice” when my husband is paid for his job?

A similar and equally perplexing problem for military spouses is: Didn’t we know what we were getting into when we married someone in the military?

There are no easy answers to these questions. My husband’s job involves sacrifice, yes, but we are compensated for his work. And no, we shouldn’t feel entitled to anything from civilians just because we are a military family and make sacrifices on other people’s behalf. It’s an all-volunteer military, after all.

That’s what people say, at least.

My husband doesn’t “volunteer” in the truest sense of the word. He doesn’t have the luxury of choosing when and where he serves. No one asks, “Is now a good time to leave your family for a year?” (Remember, the military is protecting democracy, not practicing it.) And, of course, service members receive a paycheck for their “volunteerism.”

So what an “all-volunteer” military means is that everyone else won’t be forced to serve (a la the draft) if they choose not to.

I liken it to that moment in a classroom when a teacher asks a question and the crickets start chirping. Chirp, chirp. Everyone looks at their lap or busies themselves with their notes. No one wants to be called on. Then some brave soul — someone who can’t stand the crickets any longer and who knows that sooner or later the teacher will start picking random people anyway — raises his hand and volunteers an answer. Everyone else sighs with relief.

Military men and women are those people, the ones who raise their hand and save the shy kid in the back of the class from his worst nightmare.

Unlike high school, however, military “volunteers” receive “free” (in quotes because nothing is ever really free, least of all military “benefits”) health care and tax-free groceries.

And then the military volunteers get married and things become really complicated.

I didn’t raise my hand. Dustin’s paycheck does not include my first name. I’m still practicing democracy despite living under the shadow of an organization that involves forced volunteerism. It’s as if Dustin raised his hand in class and then told the teacher, “I bet Sarah knows the answer to that.”

But didn’t I know this when I married him? Especially because I grew up in the military?

Yes, of course, I knew all these things in the same way that someone trying to get pregnant knows that having a baby will ultimately mean many sleepless nights, premature gray hair and stretch marks. I knew it in the same way that someone applying to college knows eventually they will be stressed about term papers, school loans and exams. I knew it in the same way that someone who brings a puppy into their home knows the pet will one day grow old and die.

Sometimes we want something so badly, all the related struggles are entirely worth it, or at least, tolerable.

But that doesn’t make them any easier.

Try asking a new mother, “Well, didn’t you know that you wouldn’t get a full night’s sleep for the next 18 years?”

On second thought, don’t try that.

The point is, sometimes we know what we are getting into, but we do it anyway, usually because we believe the benefits or importance outweighs the risks. I think this is true of any profession. However, some professions require more sacrifice.

So when I write that we should thank a policeman, fireman or other individual in a position of service, it’s not because I think they are entitled or that they should be pitied, as if they’ve been forced into something against their will. Rather, I think we should thank these people because they “volunteered” to do work many others would not.

For instance, I’m thankful that someone else hauls off my trash, that someone else plows the highways, that someone else mans the pediatrician’s phone in the middle of the night. I’m also thankful that it is my husband, not me, who deploys, and that someone else gets the power lines back up after a storm.

I don’t know if all of the above means others should be grateful, too. I don’t know if it means these people are entitled to something. I don’t know if theirs is still a sacrifice given that they are paid and knew what to expect. I just know that these people raised their hand when the crickets were chirping. And I am grateful.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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