Do Military Families Need Their Own Bill of Rights?

A military family walks to the Aviano Elementary School at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
A military family walks to the Aviano Elementary School at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Aug. 24, 2020. (Tucker Owen/U.S. Air Force)

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for writing about military families.

On the surface, Heba Abdelaal, the 2022 AFI Air Force Spouse of the Year, is living the dream. She is working in her desired career field while living overseas as a military spouse.

But there's a price for that dream. She pays 40% of her annual salary in taxes to a foreign country because she is married to a United States service member stationed in Germany. She, like many other military spouses, has learned that the laws intended to protect military-connected personnel and families often miss the mark.

Military spouses like Abdelaal often can't vote in the local communities in which they live, nor are they officially part of the military. And because local, state, federal and international regulations and laws are written to address the needs of a typical American family, they rarely address the unique circumstances experienced by military families.

International agreements rarely consider spouses and families. They are written to protect those who have seats at the table, the United States and host nation(s) and their "interests." It is not in the best interest of a host nation to open jobs to military spouses, losing taxable income. And it is not in the best interest of the U.S. to renegotiate international Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) to go to bat for us.

The implementation of these protections is not monitored by the states or Defense Department, leaving military families legally unprotected.

According to the Department of Labor, 89% of military spouses have attended college. They are highly educated and ambitious. So, it's not a surprise that, when their spouses receive orders to relocate overseas, they begin to research how it will impact their careers.

According to Abdelaal, her research into the SOFA that applied to her, the legal framework that covers the U.S. military presence in another country, revealed a bleak picture for military spouses.

"It's not intended for a spouse to work full-time," she said. "Even though it's technically a labor permit for the spouse, it's meant to allow the spouse to stay home and be the primary homemaker."

Army policy says that, "if you are a dependent, then you only have SOFA status as a dependent (= stay-home family member)." So, Abdelaal and others must decide to stop working, pay over 40% of their income in taxes to a foreign government, or live geographically separated.

Most SOFAs were originally negotiated in the middle of the last century, with an assumption of family units that aren't ubiquitous anymore. "Getting a bank account here as a spouse is insane, especially when it's not connected to your husband's name," said Aspen Wilburn-Caldwell, an Air Force spouse stationed at RAF Lakenheath, England. "You're not there, right there on the front of the orders. You're only three sheets deep, and no one knows how to read them."

Confusion with orders is just one aspect of the red tape surrounding the SOFA. The National Military Spouse Network (NMSN)'s 2019 White Paper notes that "military spouses cannot easily determine how and when SOFA agreements apply to them because the agreements often contain unclear legal jargon, are not easily accessible, and do not always specifically address employment in the host country."

Employment provisions within SOFA vary greatly from country to country. Employment is virtually banned in Italy, while work visas are liberally granted in countries like Korea. With the advent of digital nomad visas, many are hopeful that the problem will correct itself without U.S. government action. However, because SOFA-sponsored personnel often fall outside of the norm, with sponsorship flowing through service members, military families may not fit neatly into updated international policies that do not specifically address their situation.

Families Ask for Help

When Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass posted a photo on Facebook about her visit to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in 2021, she was inundated with comments pleading for help.

"How much more damage needs to be seen in the aftermath of this Level-5 hurricane before we are rescued from the rising waters?" wrote a Ramstein Air Base resident in a local Facebook group, likening the DoD abandonment of military personnel in Germany to the government mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, which led to the loss of nearly 2,000 American lives.

Unlike many leaders who shy away from social media, CMSAF Bass stepped up to assure the Ramstein community that the DoD was working with the Department of State to alleviate their tax burdens, as SOFAs are negotiated by State.

For decades, Congress has spent millions to correct the military spouse unemployment problem. Still, unemployment numbers have not budged and are currently estimated at 21%. Military spouses offer their own solutions, with 44% of active-duty spouses indicating that "remote work opportunities for spouses" could correct employment imbalances, according to a Blue Star Families 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey report.

Remote work opportunities may be the future for military spouses living and working in the continental United States. But for Abdelaal and others living OCONUS, the SOFA chains them to the past, assuming they are homemakers who only want to sightsee, patiently waiting for their loved ones to return home. And military spouse professionals are waiting: Waiting to be told by their stateside employer that they can't support them working overseas because of complicated employment laws; waiting to be taxed by a foreign government; and waiting for the DoD to stand up for them and their right to work.

The DoD and State Department must do two things if anything is to change. They must acknowledge that the lived experiences of military spouses are intrinsically linked to issues of military recruitment, retention and readiness. And they must act on this acknowledgment at home and abroad, giving military spouses a voice, if not a seat at the table, as they renegotiate the SOFA to support military spouse employment abroad.

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