20 years after Operation Iraqi Freedom, military spouses persevere amid challenging circumstances
Special to Stars and Stripes March 8, 2023
Martha Washington and hundreds of women with children joined soldiers at the Valley Forge encampment during the American Revolution in 1777. The future inaugural FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) fashioned an example emulated by generations of American military wives since: to extend support and deeply comfort their soldiers during times of peace and war.
Americans must critically gauge, appreciate, and understand the labor and sacrifices military spouses deliver today and in the future. We mark 20 years since American forces rolled across Iraq from Kuwait into Baghdad to begin Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003. While already in Afghanistan, the reality of a two-front war began for soldiers. Tens of thousands of military spouses and children have since endured another U.S. forward deployment.
Indeed, positive public esteem for service members during the Global War on Terror vastly outmatched the negative respect and ambivalent treatment of service members following the Vietnam War. Veterans are revered today for their military service to the nation with regular thanks for their service and more. Like the demure waiting wives of the Vietnam War, today’s military spouses, children, and loved ones have quietly endured two decades of deployments — but often long, multiple ones — further defining a unique military family reality.
Undeniably, the idea of a “military family” as a notion — where the family has become militarized — is a modern American phenomenon. But should we continue to impose a war footing existence on spouses? We don’t have medical families, religious families, or educational families. But perhaps, military spouses are like professional and amateur athletes, who send off their deployees, separated for lengthy periods and possibly suffering career-ending injuries (and hopefully not killed). In their worlds, they are also hampered by a masculine-dominated culture, moving from unit/team to unit/team around the globe, stomaching long working hours, and tolerating restraints on their behavior more strident than those on civilians. They even retire early.
Roughly half of the military members are married today. Some as dual-dwelling duos (DDD) or LATs (living apart together) in commuter-type marriages with a spouse at home or trailing along with their, affectionately known, military brats in tow. There are many of them. In 2003, there were 493,563 active Army family members, 539,675 in 2008, and 471,990 in 2018. Two-thirds are white. Most of the children are young — under 5. Military women tend to marry active or former military service members. Single parents are abundant, with the mass being single fathers, not mothers. Three in 10 recruits have a parent that served to move toward a military caste in the U.S.
Separation became aberrant normality for military-civilian spouses of the GWOT in the U.S., Britain, Estonia, Denmark, Germany, Fiji, and other countries. Their lives on the surface may resemble others where an adult is absent from home for extended periods. But military families have multiple periods with the added element of extreme danger, uncertain return times and continued deployments, erratic communication, and perceived or actual psychological and physical changes to their soldiers. Not since World War II and the Vietnam War have so many spouses become what the Germans call “Strohwitwe” (grass-widows) — essentially, temporary widows.
I have interviewed hundreds of such Army spouses. I learned of the families’ experiences finding consistent and varied events across the five major stages of an emotional cycle of a military deployment — from pre-deployment, early, mid, and late deployment, and post-deployment. Over 15 years, the spouses identified the pre-deployment as the beginning of an anxiety-filled and emotionally challenging period. Across the cycle, they consume a dizzying array of support services on and off the military post, from supplement child care to readiness groups, resume writing workshops, and casualty assistance. Americans must decide if they should have none or more of such services compensated for, but certainly, they should be known and considered.
Spouses followed their soldiers on live TV via embedded journalists and exercised recording and viewing strategies from hyper-compulsive to complete self-censoring. The home and war front merge happened not only with TV but significant increases via social mediums with varied access, connectivity difficulties, costs, family member use variance, the casualty notification process, restrictions due to OPSEC, and self-regulation. What is new and nuanced are features from the home front, such as the role of timing between the two fronts, connectivity, self-regulation, and uses and gratifications differing within a household among different family members.
Roughly 245 years later, Martha Washington might be pleased to see military spouses, boy/girlfriends, and loved ones again visit forward-deployed service members deployed to Eastern Europe. But she might take pause of the legacy of long and multiple wars that are continuing to take a sustained and quiet toll in profound ways.
Morten G. Ender is a sociology professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Army Spouses: Military Families during the Global War on Terror.” The views expressed here are his own and do not purport to represent the views of the United States Military Academy, U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.