A few years ago, my husband, Dustin, was taking command of a military unit, which is the equivalent of becoming a small company’s CEO. Soon after, I was invited to attend a Command Spouse Leadership Course, a weeklong class that, according to the mission statement, is designed to “promote a team building approach to Command by recognizing, inspiring and educating the Commanding Officers’ spouses so they realize the positive impact they can have on the morale and success of the Command.”
What that felt like: because my husband was taking a new command, I was now encouraged to begin my own venture, one that involved supporting him, his new workplace, and, of course, the military.
Important: the Navy’s support of families, some of whom face enormous social, financial and medical obstacles, is almost entirely bolstered by a network of volunteer spouses known as ombudsmen. The Navy and other family members like me owe these ombudsmen an enormous debt of gratitude for the work they do every day, all on their own time and dime. (For the record, other branches of service pay their ombudsmen.) Having a good ombudsman is akin to being assigned the best nurse in the hospital: it makes all the difference, especially when disaster or difficult times hit.
It’s no coincidence then that ombudsmen are special people. They are smart, resourceful and fully committed to serving military families day or night. I am in awe of the work they do. For all my years as a military dependent, however, I have felt wholly inadequate to become an ombudsmen myself. I don’t have the skills or talents that these spouses do, and I could never measure up to the task. So I never volunteered.
And yet, when I was invited to the Command Spouse Leadership Course, I had a suspicion that I was suddenly expected to do a similar job, a job I felt unqualified to fill, simply because the person I married had been selected to be a commanding officer. I’ve known many women, my mom included, who have risen to this role and had enormous impact on the military families around them. Blame my sometimes shyness, but I never did, and for that I am sorry.
So, sure, I could have felt put-off by the class’ emphasis on my role supporting my husband and the command, and, yes, I was annoyed that I had to take a week off to attend the course. But mostly, I felt sorry that the Navy was relying on someone like me, someone who feels unqualified to hold the title of ombudsman, to fill the gaps in their overall plan for caring for dependents.
What’s worse: I wasn’t planning to live in the same city as my husband during his command tour, a setup so common in the military, it has its own term: geobaching.
We are now three months away from Dustin ending his tour and retiring, and I am forever grateful that no one, especially my husband, ever gave me a hard time for falling short of my “duties” as the CO’s wife. So I felt bad last week when I read an article in the New York Times about Melania Trump supposedly abandoning her position in the East Wing of the White House.
Why are we expecting Melania to fill a role just because her husband was elected into a corresponding one?
“Unanswered requests for White House tours, traditionally run by the first lady’s office, have been piling up by the thousands,” the article states. And, “[i]t is not clear how much planning has gone into the elaborate White House events that are among the heaviest tasks for first ladies, such as the annual Easter Egg Roll.”
Seriously? In 2017, are we really expecting a wife, who seems to be introverted, to support her husband’s position by giving tours and planning Easter Egg Rolls? Would we have blamed Bill Clinton if he had not? And shouldn’t the East Wing, like the military, be able to carry on even if the current spouse rejects her part in it?
At least the class I took, while still sometimes outdated, was bent toward helping the military with real problems that families face, not just party-planning. And luckily, I knew there were people (ombudsmen) much more qualified to handle those real issues. But it’s frustrating that in this day and age, some things are still expected, in an official way, of wives at all, based solely on marriage.
According to Politico, the office of the first lady uses up to $1.5 million per year in taxpayer dollars. Perhaps, then, it’s not a terrible thing that this office is losing some relevancy. I can think of many other ways to spend $1.5 million. Providing more funding for the Navy’s ombudsmen would be a nice place to start.