After you’ve spent any time in the military, you figure out that the Department of Defense, as with all bureaucracies, has tentacles with a far reach. “Tentacles.” That’s my word for when I think I’m taking care of business, and then the military shows me otherwise. It’s like the Seinfeld character “Newman” in my life.
“No, it’s just the military’s computer system that bothers you,” Dustin says. “Actually, it’s the DEERS system that always gets messed up.”
DEERS: that stands for Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. For as long as I’ve been a military dependent, I’ve never really understood DEERS, even though I was born into it and then transferred right along on it when I got married (more on that in a minute). Basically it’s the computerized system that the Department of Defense uses to keep track of military members’ and retirees’ entitlements. Entitlements are the good tentacles; updating DEERS is the bad one. And nothing — healthcare, ID cards, etc — works for military families without an updated DEERS.
A month after Dustin and I got married, I needed to make sure I was enrolled in DEERS as Dustin’s spouse because some of my benefits weren’t working. I was 23 years old.
Here’s a very condensed version (minus the holds, long pauses and audible typing) of how that phone call went:
Me: I need to make sure I’m listed on DEERS as my husband’s wife.
[Some back-and-forth giving the operator my social security number, my husband’s, our birth dates, etc.]
Operator: You aren’t listed in DEERS, but your husband already has a first wife. So you’ll be listed as his second wife.
Me (glaring at Dustin): I’m sorry, did you say my 24-year-old husband that I just married actually had a wife before me?
Me: And what was her name?
Dustin (urgently whispering to me): Yes, ask them who it was.
Operator: I can’t give out that information.
Me (still glaring at Dustin): That’s okay, I know someone who can.
[Some more long and drawn out back-and-forth giving the operator more information, including my maiden name, and then…..]
Operator: “Oops, you’re listed as your husband’s first wife under your maiden name. That’s the ‘first wife’ he had. Hahahaha.”
Everyone (by “everyone” I mean just the operator and Dustin) had a good hearty laugh about that, but I knew my troubles were just beginning because DEERS has to be updated every time there is a change, like a new baby. Of course, the service member is the one who makes those changes, so maybe my blame is misplaced. In any case, DEERS has always been a stumbling block for me.
And then Dustin retired. The last DEERS change was to move him from active-duty to retired status, and then to get all of our ID cards updated. Dustin was away for training with his new job when this happened.
Dustin: Just go to the base and get new ID cards, and then we’re all set.
Me: Are you sure? It’s never that easy.
Dustin: Positive. This one is in fact easy. It’s all set up. You just have to go and get the new cards.
So I wrangled two teenagers and one 10-year-old and took them to the base for new ID cards. As we were waiting in the lobby, I got a little sentimental about the military. The posters taped to the walls, the coffee pots and stained mugs on the counter, the Military Spouse magazines on the tables — all of it brought back so many memories and sort of made me feel at home.
Then the DoD reached out one of its long tentacles again.
“Your DEERS information is not correct,” the receptionist told me. “You can’t get ID cards today.”
“But my husband said this one would be easy.”
A few days later, our insurance was denied, because, well, DEERS. And then our ID cards were confiscated at the guard shack, because, yes, DEERS. And all the while, Dustin continued to say, “It’s just the system. The people want to make it right, but the computer system is complicated.”
So why does any of this matter? Because for one month, thanks to the DEERS glitch, we were technically without insurance, and for the first time in my life, I understood what that feels like for millions of families. I postponed care and medication refills. I paid out-of-pocket. And I stayed up at night worrying about what would happen if one of the boys broke their legs water skiing.
I recognize the problem is larger than a computer glitch for many families, and although I don’t have the answers, that is something that has weighed heavily on my mind recently.
So even though I still shake my head about DEERS and wonder why it never works the first time, I have newfound respect for this system that has more often than not (I only remember the times it didn’t work, right?) kept our family afloat for more than 20 years. And I am grateful to my husband for serving all that time to ensure those tentacles (the good ones) are with us long after the uniform is packed away.