Bethanne Patrick, in a recent editorial for The Daily Beast, asks that we take a moment to step away from the characters in the forefront of the General Petraeus cheating scandal (characters include Petraeus, his former sex partner Paula Broadwell, socialite [I can’t believe that’s an actual title] Jill Kelley, and General John Allen) to remember Petraeus’ wife, Holly Petraeus.
Patrick believes we should remember her because, unlike the other women at the center of this whirlwind of titillating excitement, she is a military spouse. Military spouses, she says, have an “unsung and noble plight.”
As a military spouse, that assessment makes me very uncomfortable, but it’s important to clarify why.
I do believe a key aspect of the military spouse experience is “unsung,” and that’s the war experience, the management of the psychological and emotional impact of having a lover/significant other/call-it-what-you-will at war. It was so important to me to introduce the wider population to that experience that I wrote a novel about it that draws readers into its raw, gritty, private, won’t-see-this-on-Oprah recesses.
But the rest of her assessment is one I believe increases the military-civilian divide. The characterization of military spouses as somehow different from civilians, as – dare I say – better than (“noble” has that connotation, as does the suggestion that we have a “plight”), invites that separation, continues the assumption that we – The Proud, The Few, The Spouses (?) – are wrapped in a camouflage flag and imbued with all that is associated with the military: honor, courage, sacrifice, military politics, field training exercises, CQ duty, early morning PT, specialized training, etc.
Patrick writes that military spouses “do not take oaths of military service, but …do stand by our men and women,” and that while America honors its military, many forget that “service members marry men and women who do not themselves wear a uniform but must live by the oaths their spouses take.” She goes on to write that the indoctrination into the military lifestyle begins with the wedding, when the couple walks under an arch of swords (typical military-style wedding).
I’m familiar with the oath service members take, and it’s not one I’ve ever been asked or required as a military spouse to live by. Ian (my husband) and I delivered our version of wedding vows when the time came as we stood on a swordless beach, but the military wasn’t a part of them even in subtext (nor was my being a writer, even if it should have been, because I know my angst has probably caused him at least a tiny fraction of the angst I felt while he was deployed).
Patrick includes the use of “a beige Dependent Spouse ID card that is necessary for everything from grocery shopping at the post commissary to emergency-room care at any hospital” as part of this indoctrination, and contextually, as one of the initial steps illustrating the giving up of our dreams for theirs.
But the ID card isn’t a microchip or a label, it’s a benefit. It’s access to less expensive groceries in the commissary, if you choose to shop there. You don’t have to shop there – you can visit your local store on the economy, if you want. You also aren’t required to visit a military doctor if you don’t want to. If you want to see one, yes, you have to use your ID, but if you’re more comfortable finding a civilian practitioner, go ahead. Use the privilege the ID card gives you, or don’t, but please don’t imply that it’s a sign of a loss of independence or individuality.
Patrick is correct when she writes, “The assumption is, from the moment the vows are finished, that a military spouse will ‘fall in’ with whatever her spouse’s career needs.” That is, assuming she means the spouse will end up leaving jobs and starting jobs and leaving more jobs due to moves around the country (or world). Anyone who marries someone in the military is already aware that they probably won’t live in the same state for the rest of their lives (unless they prefer to live separately).
But many take “whatever her spouse’s career needs” only as far as they choose. A military spouse doesn’t have to be any more actively engaged in the service member’s job than s/he wants to be. S/he doesn’t have to host parties. S/he doesn’t have to join or head the Family Readiness Group. S/he doesn’t have to kiss up to the service member’s superiors. At the least, it would be polite to attend a military ball or social function, but that’s no different from any other obligation a person signs on for when getting married to anyone, military or civilian.
As Patrick’s editorial exalting the military spouse continues, it expounds more on the sacrifices military spouses make, touching somewhat on deployments but focusing more on the moving issue, such as being forced to find new housing if the service member is reassigned, and whether to stay in the marital town or move home (where the blood relatives live) during a deployment.
Moving is a stressful event for anyone, but it hardly qualifies someone to consider their military spouse “plight” (def: unfortunate condition: a difficult or dangerous situation, especially a sad or desperate predicament) one that is “noble” (def: honorable, meritorious, principled).
I will be the first to say that the military spouse experience requires, begs for, and deserves more understanding – specifically during war time. Having a lover in what one perceives to be imminent danger of death for up to or beyond a year is inexplicably powerful. Spouses have been known to suffer PTSD, have had to go on anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication. Have had to see therapists. (The only appointments I ever made with a psychologist followed Ian’s return from Iraq.)
Some are trying to work with the military health system and the government to manage a service member’s injury or disability, and trying to figure out what to do following the death of a loved one at war.
These are all uniquely torturous experiences.
Otherwise, being married to someone in the military (taking war out of the equation) is simply different. Not better, not worse, just different. Although, perhaps (unavoidably) more challenging than the average stay-in-one-place-forever lifestyle.
Although First Lady Michelle Obama has publicly supported military families and made some strides in focusing efforts to get them more resources, neither she nor any person who has not walked a mile several paces behind a military rank will ever know what it means to always come second, to always be the “dependent” family member, to always compromise if you know that you’re married to someone whose star (or stars, in the case of Petraeus) is ascendant.
This is not a valid reason in and of itself to demand, or even request, special consideration or elevated levels of respect. The military is inarguably a unique community, but everyone who’s married has a spouse of a certain rank, even if the rank is civilian. The spouse works in the mail room, or s/he’s the CEO. Structure, propriety, and expectations still apply. No spouse “walks several paces behind a military rank” unless that’s how they choose to view their personal position as a spouse, or perhaps unless that’s the value the military and/or rank has within the marriage (which is a choice).
That Holly Petraeus is a military spouse isn’t why we should consider what she’s going through. If anything, we should take a moment to stop salivating over the salaciousness of the scandal to remember that a woman was hurt, here. Her husband of 38 years had an affair. Taking for granted that the two of them didn’t have some kind of agreement or that Mrs. Petraeus didn’t already know what was going on (or that she’s still in love with her husband), a woman was devastated by this. A real person has really, in real life, just had what she thought she knew about her marriage, and possibly everything she thought she knew about her husband, shattered.
She’s a human first. She married someone in the Army second. And anyone can do that.
featured image source: inmagine.com