Pillow Talk Is Policy: How the DoD Relies upon Senior Military Spouses

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A special Military Spouse Appreciation Day event was held at the DODEA Daegu Middle High School
A special Military Spouse Appreciation Day event was held at the DODEA Daegu Middle High School soccer field to celebrate military spouses in 2020. (Cody Nelson/U.S. Army)

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

Here I was in a room filled with women, mostly in their twenties, sheepishly holding cow -- yes, bovine -- themed presents, glued to the walls of one wife's apartment, unsure exactly what they were celebrating.

Most were unfamiliar with military protocol. Could they pick up a crust-less sandwich now or should they wait for a secret handshake or curtsy from the party's guest of honor, the COW or Commanding Officer's Wife? It was confusing because we were not there to celebrate her direct accomplishments. We were surrounded by black-and-white figures of dairy producers because the COW's husband, a commanding officer in the United States Navy, had received a promotion. And we, her juniors, were expected to throw her a party and buy her tacky figurines to thank her for her service.

Commanding officer spouses often serve as unofficial advisers to the spouses of those under their partner's command. They host command events and manage phone trees. And because of their proximity to power, they often are the first to receive official updates, making them an invaluable source of information and structurally very important to military family support.

On the surface, I found COW parties and many other senior spouse traditions harmless. But under the glossy white-and-black veneer, I wondered if the Defense Department's reliance upon chain-of-command structures, in which senior spouses serve their "juniors," is a proactive military family communication strategy or a sign that commanders still unofficially rely on the two-for-one command leadership model that was banned in the 1980s. In the absence of regularly collected feedback from military families, are our military leaders relying upon the experiences of their own husbands and wives to inform decision-making and policies?

Today, 80.8% of our military officers identify as male and 75.3% are white. All 46 U.S. presidents have been male, and all but one were white. Roughly 72% of the 118th Congress is male and 75% identify as white.

Ninety-five percent of the 116 Supreme Court Justices have been male, and 97% have been white.

Historically the American "melting pot" has not been proportionally represented in any areas of leadership. Although more women and people of color are holding seats of power today, their presence is far from representative. That means leaders have to proactively seek out diverse points of view if they want to engage in fully informed decision-making.

"I rely on my wife as a 34-year military spouse through multiple deployments and Sally Thornberry (then-Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry's spouse), groups that come in and we constantly try to borrow and use their ideas," said Rep. Trent Kelly in an interview conducted in April 2020. While Kelly has a proven track record in advancing military family legislation, his sentiment fell very flat with me and, for some time after our interview, I couldn't put my finger on why.

Then, I realized that pillow talk with someone you have chosen to live your life with does not mean you have found a representative voice. But that's what serves as the alternative viewpoint all the time.

So many leaders in countless interviews from the Defense Department to politicians recounted using similar strategies. Kelly is just willing to admit he turns to the convenient insights of a spouse for professional decision-making. And to be fair, I know that he also regularly talks to official stakeholders. But what about the lazy politicians? I don't know about you, but I'm not OK with my female point of view only being represented in the bedrooms of my elected leaders or my husband's bosses.

The (Bed)Room Where It Happens

"My life is a slow-rolling nightmare right now," said Rebecca Ivory, Ph.D. and Navy COW (spouse), in an interview describing the balancing act she tried to manage while working on her degree. "Every day, I wake up and at some point in the day I have to decide whether it's more important to be my husband's wife and do squadron stuff or do my [dissertation] stuff." And she wasn’t the only one having to make this decision to unofficially serve the military community or pursue their own interests.

The pressure Ivory and others feel may seem self-imposed but is reinforced by observing senior spouse participation and in books like the 406-page Army Spouse Handbook. Even as recently as 2019, there was a full chapter dedicated to the "unofficial" duties of a commander's spouse, telling them to "identify needs and interests of the group" and to "gather and pass information." Although their role is optional, "if the commander is not married, if the spouse does not live at that location, or if the spouse chooses not to assist in this manner, it is important for another spouse in the unit to be asked to provide that leadership." The Navy and Air Force also have handbooks with similar, but branch-specific guidance.

Even the most junior service, the Space Force, recognizes and elevates the role of the spouses of its leaders in these traditional ways. When a senior military officer is invited to command a unit in that branch, they are often invited to attend leadership training; their spouses are also invited.

"[Spouses] are integral to cementing a strong cultural foundation and help establish a positive command environment for members and their families, so they are encouraged to attend," wrote Space Force Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton in a Jan. 3, 2023, memo reviewed by Military.com. Military personnel head to one room where they focus on more operational themes, while the spouses are focused on family quality of life.

The Space Force is just the latest service to offer such senior spouse training, following the precedent set by the other services. The training is a perpetuation of the traditional two-for-one leadership model, highlighting that a spouse's domain is with the families.

"Your job is to support your husband's career," said a two-star general's wife to Jennifer Nightingale, an Air Force veteran and Space Force spouse. Nightingale had hoped to find a sympathetic ear, as they had been trying to find a military career pathway that would support both spouses' professional goals.

So, Nightingale was not surprised when her husband was questioned by another general after not jumping at the chance to say yes to a last-minute command assignment. Like many military families, the Nightingales had to weigh the decision as a family. "'With all due respect, my wife is not a staff accountant. She makes more than you do.' And the general was shocked," Nightingale told me, recounting her husband’s description of the exchange. Her husband reported that the general came back the next day after having gotten an earful from his own wife.

According to Nightingale, the earful went something like this: "I love you; I've been happy to support your career. It has not come without cost, and that cost shouldn't have to be paid. You guys are a small force. It is 2020. Do better."

And the general did. The Nightingales were able to turn down the assignment without negative career implications. Although this interaction ended positively, the decision to consider family dynamics when handing out assignments was not based on a policy that encourages leaders to see people as people. It was a point of view provided by one strategically placed senior military spouse.

And elected or commissioned, or not, an individual spouse can make or break quite a lot.

Some senior spouses take the opportunity to make things better for those coming behind them. The Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. Charles" CQ" Brown Jr., who is slated to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs ,attended an Air Force Town Hall, sharing, "When we [he and his wife Sharene] travel and go to bases, as soon as we hit the ground … I go one direction, Sharene goes to another. I'm doing mission stuff; she's doing airmen and family things."

During her husband's time serving in this role, Sharene Brown, along with other Air Force spouse volunteers, launched Five & Thrive, which was established to "improve quality-of-life challenges our Air and Space Force families face in five focus areas: Childcare, Education, Healthcare, Housing, and Spouse Employment." The project centralizes resources and makes them highly visible to younger generations of military spouses, something the branches struggle with on their own.

Does this mean Navy, Army and Marine Corps families are out of luck if their branches' senior spouses do not step up in this way? Kinda. Based on this traditional two-for-one model where a senior spouse volunteers their time to assist their juniors, the absence of their contribution is felt by junior spouses if the service branch doesn't replace this volunteerism with funded programming.

It is not at all surprising to me that senior military spouses feel this pressure to volunteer, because America expects the spouses of its senior public servants to serve.

Just look at the commander in chief's spouse, the first lady. She is unelected and unpaid but is culturally expected to volunteer her time to advance family-focused causes. And if the first lady serves as an example of how these roles are received, senior military spouses may feel damned if they do, stepping back from personal careers to serve, and damned if they don't, for "abandoning" their fellow spouses by not volunteering enough.

"I am proud of the way that Mrs. Brown is a megaphone for the programs that exist," said Monica Bassett, founder and CEO of Stronghold Food Pantry and the 2022 Armed Forces Insurance Army Spouse of the Year. While as an Army spouse, Bassett may not directly benefit from the Air Force's Five & Thrive efforts, she recognizes that the work is needed. "We know that unless we volunteer and speak up, families will be at risk of losing out on these [programs]. So, we volunteer to ensure all have access. I appreciate people, military spouses, standing in the gap. Sometimes these [spouse] volunteers are all we have."

The reliance upon the experiences and volunteerism of the spouses of our senior military leaders represents a fundamentally flawed assumption that military families are not stakeholders who require their own seats at the table, not just a plus-one. If the DoD wants to continue to move away from the two-for-one model of leadership support, it must create and fund an equitable replacement and bring all levels of military spouses to the table, even if it is not as convenient or fun as pillow talk.

-- Follow Jennifer Barnhill on Twitter @more_than_mommy.

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