Somewhere at the Pentagon, someone with a lot of medals on his chest is shaking his head, wondering why I was chosen to take the 2014 Navy Spouse Personal and Family Readiness Survey.
Except, the letter inviting my participation stated I was “randomly selected,” and I believe it. Any top brass who has read my column knows I’m quite outspoken about these things, and I imagine the chances of me being “hand-selected” are slim.
In any case, it’s always startling to receive a letter from the Department of the Navy addressed to “The Spouse of.” It’s even more startling when you realize the Navy is asking for your opinion. This felt like those teacher evaluations in college that cause students to panic: Should I be honest? Will it affect my grade? (As someone who has been on the receiving end of teacher evaluations, the answers are “Yes” and “No.”)
But remember, I view the Navy somewhat like a relative. Often, I love to hate it. Later, I feel guilty about my anger (“Think of all the Navy has given me!”). I’m currently, however, in an intense annoyed-with-the-Navy phase due to things that were not addressed in the 2014 survey. So although I very much appreciate the Navy reaching out to spouses, I’m seizing this opportunity as my “use extra sheets of paper if necessary” for all those is-there-anything-else-you’d-like-to-add type of questions.
First, the positives: The survey shows the Navy is adjusting to the new millennium. I’ve written before about the changing dynamics of military families and how Uncle Sam often is delayed keeping pace. There was a time when a military man’s uniform was an asset courting a romantic partner. Because social norms kept many women inside the house as homemakers, marrying a military man did not necessarily mean abandoning an education or career. Indeed, marrying a military man meant the opportunity for excitement and world travel.
Today, as women increasingly match men as breadwinners for their families, a man’s military uniform can be a liability. It signifies extra hurdles to the woman’s own career and retirement.
The Navy’s survey addressed this. It asked about my ability to pursue a career and education. It also asked about our living situation, revealing that the Navy is aware more families are choosing a geo-bachelor situation (“commuter marriage” in the civilian world) to deal with frequent moves and to stabilize the military spouse’s own career.
The survey asked about our children, too, and how they handle deployments. This is a relatively new arena for the Navy, as well. When my dad was deploying in the 1970s, “the absent father” wasn’t unusual, military or not. But the role of “dad” has changed with newer generations. Increasingly, dads are expected — and want — to be equally involved in their children’s upbringing. This makes deployments even more burdensome on all sides. I appreciate the Navy looking for programs and services to ease these unique military-family issues.
But there are some areas the survey didn’t address.
When it asked about mental health and barriers to our family’s ability to find help when we need it, there was no room to answer “TriCare won’t cover the counselor who was helping me. They wanted me instead to go to someone 90 miles away.” (More on this in a forthcoming column.)
When the survey asked about length of deployments, it offered nothing on the topic of the timing of deployments. When Dustin last deployed, he was expected to report to Djibouti on Dec. 23. When he got there, the new command told him, basically, they were on holiday, and he’d start the next week. Now, someone somewhere knew this would happen to my husband. And yet, they didn’t adjust his report date and allow him to be with us for Christmas and then leave for deployment.
It’s these little inefficiencies here and there — like paying to move a family from one coast to another and back again, when said family, after being asked to rank preferences for their next command, requested to stay on the East Coast anyway — that wear down a spouse.
It’s these inefficiencies that affect retention (and really that’s the Navy’s ultimate interest).
And so I have some questions of my own for the Navy, questions that impact our decision to stay in or get out:
1. Why do you ask us where we want to be stationed and then send us somewhere else?
2. Why do you charge leave for a geo-bachelor on shore duty with a desk job to go home and take care of his Navy family for the weekend?
3. Why do you encourage us to get help and then restrict who we can see?
4. Why doesn’t lower-level management have the ability to foresee a dilemma (service member reporting for deployment on Dec. 23) and tweak it?
5. Why do you say families are important, but then you make redundant policies that put us last? (See question 2).
Feel free to use as many extra sheets of paper as necessary.
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 Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.