Is the DoD Dependent on Military Families?

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In the 1980s, Navy commissaries printed "Navy Wife. It's the Toughest Job in the Navy" on grocery bags.
In the 1980s, Navy commissaries printed "Navy Wife. It's the Toughest Job in the Navy" on grocery bags. This phrase is currently used by dependapotamus hunters. (Courtesy of Jennifer Barnhill)

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.

Just a spouse. Dependent. Dependa. There are a range of terms used to describe military spouses

Officially, the Department of Defense sees military spouses and children as "dependents'' on military paperwork, but the term has stretched beyond the bureaucratic and become firmly established in the informal military lexicon. 

Rather than remaining two-dimensional and relegated to paperwork, the term "dependent" and its demeaning cousin, "dependa," have been used to not so subtly undermine the very real contributions of military families, the hidden all-volunteer force.  

"One day, I was Capt. Erin Morris, lawyer. … The next day I was Chief Stern's wife," said Erin Morris, an Army reservist and veteran who became a "dependent" military spouse in 2015. 

"I went to the vet on post … and I will never forget the sign-in sheet," Morris recalled. "It said something like, date and time of appointment, name of the pet, service member name and ID expiration date. It never once asked me for my name." 

Morris did not lose her ability to think critically the moment she hung up her uniform. She did not somehow become less responsible. And yet this transition from service member to "dependent" spouse effectively made her dependent upon her husband just to get things done.

Do Military Spouses Care About Being Called Dependent? 

In July, I appeared on the Holding Down the Fort Podcast to talk about my reporting and research on the military spouse community. This research highlighted a lack of belonging that is felt by military spouses. This lack of belonging stems from the military's "dependent mentality." During the podcast, I commented that "changing the language from 'dependent' to family member is one easy way to make people feel like they belong."

That quote was then turned into an audiogram and social media post that worked its way around the military spouse community. The vast majority of comments were in support of the suggestion, cringing at the overuse of "dependent" and "dependa." Unsurprisingly, there were active-duty and veteran trolls. I was prepared for them. I was unprepared for the "meh-ness" shared by some military spouses. They didn't see the big deal with being called dependents. 

Some of their comments included: 

"Couldn't care less. I would prefer no mold in housing, child care availability so I can go back to work, health care access that actually makes sense." And, "I would appreciate better health care or more appropriate/realistic/accurate Basic Allowance for Housing rates over a small change in verbiage. Not really offended about a word."

The reasons varied but centered around two main ideas about the term dependent:

  • It's used for benefit classification and doesn't negatively impact them.
  • It's just a word, and they are worried about "bigger" quality-of-life problems.

Both are fair points. All health care systems use terminology to identify beneficiaries as just that, beneficiaries. My response to them was not a defense of my point, but more of a question:

What if the term dependent has become a mentality that allows the DoD to ignore military family problems because we don't really belong to this community?

The word dependent means "to hang from." The implicit message is that the family member can't take care of themselves and is creating a burden on the service member. If that service member isn't strong enough or if military families allow their personal struggles to weigh down their service member, the military lifestyle will break the family apart. When this strength-to-weight ratio is in balance, they are labeled resilient. If they can't rise to the occasion, they are seen as dependas.

The 'Dependapotamus' in the Room

I remember attending an Area Orientation Brief (AOB) in Japan in 2008, surrounded by service members and spouses. We learned a bit about the culture and available support programs, and generally consumed information via firehose.

One message that was subtly, but effectively, delivered: Some military spouses ruin things for the rest of us. We were told we couldn't work directly with the Personal Property Office to coordinate our move even though our service members were deployed. Power of Attorney was the only way we could function as adults; don't leave home without one.

The reason was more urban legend than a justifiable policy: There were rumors of a military spouse using the PCS process to pack out her things and leave her husband. She probably had cheated on him with a civilian, or so the fable went. 

It was this mentality that says I can't renew my military ID without my sponsor because I can't be trusted. It is this mentality that forgets military spouses when the Department of State negotiates Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) that say who can (service members) and cannot (spouses) buy a car.

We are made dependent because some woman somewhere allegedly did something. And that is how a single word becomes a mentality, which becomes policy.

The term "dependa" is a military community slur, a socially acceptable word to demean military spouses who utilize the benefits afforded to their active-duty service members. According to social media portrayals, a dependa "wears rank" and adopts and embraces the two-for-one mentality that many of us try to shake. They are senior military spouses, mostly wives, who whisper, "I've earned this" to themselves before they demand service on base. 

Like any good military urban legend, their exploits are notorious, earning them the label dependa. Those who seek to prevent dependas from being a drain on the DoD or individual service members, are called "dependapotamus hunters."

With the proliferation of the internet and cyberbullying, the term "dependa" has gotten ugly. Military spouse Angie Drake was an advocate for military family issues when the "dependa" issue peaked in 2015. She and a group of fellow spouses were fed up with the bullying and collaborated on releasing a series of articles on the "dependa" topic to raise awareness. Sadly, it didn't do much to reduce the frequency of service members using the slur. 

"I think a lot of military members were sick and tired of seeing military spouses advocate for themselves. They thought we should be quiet and shut up," said Drake. "The idea of a dependa has been around for a long time. The internet made it much easier to make the concept go a little more viral. People were getting individually attacked [for advocacy], and I think they still are."

This dependa-bashing is so common it is even featured in prominent military publications like Task and Purpose, the Duffel Blog and letters to Military.com's Ms. Vicki. However, these articles rarely cite real military dependa-like behavior but instead speak in generalities, feeding stereotypes rather than making an effective argument. 

Because DoD policy labels us dependents, informal military culture feels it has permission to call us dependas. And as a result, neither party has to acknowledge that they depend on us.

The DoD Depends on Military Spouses

In the early 1990s, researchers conducted a study examining the productivity and promotability of American males. They contrasted married and single men, and what they found was astounding. Married men were magically more productive and promotable than their single counterparts, making anywhere from 10% to 30% more income. The prevailing theory on why married men were more productive: They didn't have to split their attention between their professional labor and their personal labor attending to household tasks, like preparing their own food, caring for children or maintaining a household. 

They depended upon their spouses to get these household tasks done so they could hunker down and do the "real work." There are few populations where this imbalance of household labor is more pronounced than the military. 

Although the military has historically been composed of theoretically less productive, single men, this is no longer the case. In the year after it transitioned to an all-volunteer force in 1973, the number of enlisted personnel with families increased by 40%. These percentages increased in the decades following, and today more than 50% of service members have "dependents," linking family life and quality of life to retention and readiness efforts.

The military wants a productive force and, as a result, it depends on its dependents. 

In addition to any military morale-focused volunteer efforts, military spouses serve as primary caregivers to children and are largely responsible for running households during deployments. Their very presence relieves their service member from having to file a family care plan, making this dependence on military spouses part of official policy. 

It may be naive to think changing standard forms to read "Family Member" instead of "dependent" will correct the military's "dependent mentality" and stop the bullying. It is the dependent mentality-informed policies that stripped Erin Morris of her identity when she hung up her uniform. It is the mentality that undermines my and my fellow spouses' contributions to overall mission readiness. 

Personally, I don't care if someone calls me a dependa. The military can't control every extremist or cyberbully. I do care if these same service members are allowed to treat me like an irresponsible child when I need to access earned benefits. But that is exactly what they have been permitted to do because the dependent mentality has permeated policy. 

The DoD depends on military families, but I suspect it's afraid of what this acknowledgment would mean. If our unpaid contributions were acknowledged, the DoD would have to admit that it is not strong enough to sustain its personnel without systemically relying upon unpaid (92% female) labor. Removing the word dependent from paperwork is just one small step. But that is how all big change happens, eating the dependapotamus one bite at a time.

-- In addition to her reporting, Jennifer Barnhill is also the chief operating officer and lead researcher for Partners in PROMISE, editor-in-chief of the National Military Spouse Network Day of Advocacy Steering Committee, and the military spouse liaison on The League of Wives Memorial Project.

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