This week, my husband Dustin officially retires from the military after 20 years. He and I were raised in military families, and, in my husband’s case, he has remained part of the military ever since he entered the Naval Academy. As for me, I went from being my dad’s military dependent to being my husband’s, with just six weeks in between.
In short, Dustin and I know no other life.
And yet, here we are, two military-kids-turned-military-family living in a largely civilian region of the country (the northeast), raising three boys of our own and wondering if any of them are interested in serving.
This made two recent news articles all the more poignant. One, from We are the Mighty, reported on a recent Blue Star Families poll, which showed that more than half of today’s service members would not recommend the same lifestyle for their children. The other article, from USA Today, stated that the military comprises generational recruits who are from the same regions of the country.
That seems like a lot of contradictions. More military recruits are coming from the same families in the same regions of the country, but most service members would not recommend military service for their kids. But it’s not surprising.
For most of our childhoods and marriage, Dustin and I lived in dense military regions such as Norfolk, Virginia; San Diego, California; and Jacksonville, Florida. There, seeing someone in uniform is an everyday event. They are in the grocery store, at the school picking up kids, and in their car at the stoplight next to you. Military discounts are a big deal. So is Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Words like “deployment,” “leave” and “TAD” are spoken even by the civilians. And if a teacher asks whose parent is deployed, a half-dozen hands go up — not just one or two.
According to the USA Today story, just 0.4 percent of the population serves in the active-duty military. Of those service members, most (60 percent) came from the South and the West. Nearly 40 percent of all military recruits come from the South alone. The northeast, for all its population, is underrepresented in the military.
This regional disparity means that many Americans do not have firsthand knowledge of what it means to be a military family. The neighbors of those 0.4 percent living in Virginia, California and Florida are exposed to the military every single day just because of their location, but according to other polls, that doesn’t mean their children are signing up. Citing a Harvard Institute of Politics study in 2015, USA Today notes that “while 60 percent of youth ages 18 to 29 supported sending ground troops to fight ISIS, 85 percent would probably or definitely not join the military if additional troops were needed.”
The problem does not go away online. In 2017, thanks to social media and the internet, we are bound less by our geographical regions than ever before. And yet, we still have online bubbles based on, for instance, with whom we interact more on Facebook.
When the USS Fitzgerald collided with another ship over the weekend, I didn’t know about it until later in the day when my husband mentioned it. Dustin is rarely on Facebook, and most of his friends are still active-duty and living in those aforementioned military regions, where the news was likely heavily reported. Dustin’s newsfeed and mine are very different because of Facebook’s algorithms, in which things you see are based on what your friends are reading. On the day of the Fitzgerald accident, my newsfeed was filled with Father’s Day posts and parenting articles. Dustin’s newsfeed was filled with news of the collision.
None of this means that people outside of the military regions don’t care. Of course they care. It’s just a little more removed. It’s not in their backyard. Which might explain why their kids aren’t signing up.
But according to We are the Mighty, military kids aren’t signing up, either. “Extended family separations, frequent moves, and outdated expectations that military spouses sublimate their personal, professional, and familial priorities to support their service member’s military service are the most prevalent topics identified,” the Blue Star Families report said.
Yes to all of the above. I am part of the problem and the contradiction. On one hand, this week marks a momentous moment for me and Dustin: the first time we are not affiliated with the active-duty Navy in 41 years. Like a foreigner moving to a new country, I worry about losing my “accent,” the flavor of my life that has always been colored by the military.
On the other hand, I’m forever grateful to be raising my children in the northeast, where there is stability and continuity. Neighbors live in the same house for more than 20 years. Most moms and dads don’t deploy. But with that, comes further isolation from the military world I’ve known since I was born.
I can’t say I’d choose the same life for my kids or that I’d even encourage them one way or the other. I wouldn’t trade our military life for anything, but I’m also glad to be moving on. Mostly, however, I’m proud of my husband for doing his part, and I know, no matter the region of the country, he will always be an example of and ambassador for service.
Maine writer and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.