Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.
When Holly Vega stepped on the stage after having been named the 2019 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year, she was flanked by an enlarged magazine cover featuring her family. The headline read, "A Generous Volunteer." She certainly is, but the cover glossed over too-long deployments and presented a two-dimensional version of her happiness. With so many happy military families gracing the covers of magazines, are we being sold an oversimplified and perhaps rosy version of military life?
Vega, who is also the founder of Military Hearts Matter, is not the only "cover spouse" whose portrayal makes the life of a military spouse look easier than reality. And Military Spouse Magazine is not alone in its desire to feature positive stories. The military family community has long feasted on the "good news story." This journalistic trope features a military spouse, child or service member who has overcome something hard to achieve something good. It feels good. It gives us hope that we too can overcome that same military-related circumstance. It's also flawed logic. Just because one person overcame something hard, that doesn't mean the underlying problem they faced has been removed.
I should know. As a journalist, I have written many of these happy stories. And as a spouse, I have consumed them. We all want to hope. That is why our Netflix schedule needs to add a few romcoms between true crime binges. We can't take bad news 24/7.
But the hard truth is that the good news story is the aspartame of news. We want something sugary sweet to satisfy us but, just like fake sugar, it does not satisfy our craving. We soon need more. The only way to satisfy our craving is to fix the underlying problems glossed over by the Good News piece. We need the harder-to-swallow stories.
Widows and survivors had to take their tear-jerking stories to Capitol Hill to get the widow's tax repealed. Exceptional Family Member Program parents had to ask Congress for help before the program was updated.
If we know that telling our hard-to-hear stories can lead to positive change, why does military family news avoid them? Is it because we are afraid that telling hard stories will kill morale or get our spouses in trouble? Do we just like Good News stories or is it because we gobble up the only content we are fed? Do harder-hitting stories just scare us?
What Do We Consume?
Military families don't typically get a lot of press coverage compared to their service members, whose stories are featured in both military and civilian outlets. We usually make the news when we are holding an American flag, sometimes waving it at a homecoming celebration or clutching it, folded, while garbed in black.
Military media outlets divide content, separating operational/veteran news from spouse/family topics, with the vast majority of news content being written with service members in mind. Outlets like the military's Stars and Stripes do not prominently feature a dedicated family section on their websites. When present, the spouse/family content is primarily focused on informing spouses about military life.
AmeriForce Media's portfolio of three publications includes Military Families Magazine, which offers a digital and print magazine dedicated to military family stories and topics. While many covers are similar to Vega's, recent covers have increasingly featured service members. So far in 2023, 66% of Military Families Magazine covers featured non-military family topics. I wondered why.
"We got a lot of pushback that [sic] our content was lighter," said Melissa Stewart, the former content editor for Military Families Magazine. "There wasn't a lot of advertising that would come into the magazine that … was targeted at a female audience or targeted at young families. So, therefore, you know, the sales team would constantly push us to have more of that content that would apply to the service member."
Finding a balance between producing stories that serve an intended audience vs. creating new content to expand that audience is a struggle for all media outlets. But stories that appeal to funders are not always what is popular with military families.
"I got a ton of impressions and engagement on our social media channels and on the web page [for a story] that was about a Gold Star family," said Stewart. "With our audience, at least where the spouses are concerned, they respond a lot online to the content that they can relate to."
Stewart explained that being able to read a story, however hard, helped the community feel seen and gave them the space to interact with the content. "I think that, overall, the good news stories are important, but I wish that we also could have told more hard-hitting ones as well."
Are Good News Stories Military Policy?
While media funding drives what is available to consume in the military family community, so does the availability of sources. Often, military news is driven by updates to Defense Department policies, updates from military-serving nonprofits and individuals who have a story to share. But what if neither the DoD nor the nonprofits are aware of an emerging issue? Media relies on sources to share a tip, something that may be less likely within the military family community, possibly even more so in communities of color who may be wary of the press for having misrepresented their stories in the past.
"There's backlash for speaking up about a problem," said Heather Campbell, a registered dietitian and Air Force spouse who is an advocate helping to raise awareness about military food insecurity. "I experienced it. I had a meeting [about food insecurity] on my local installation and, within hours, my husband [who was ] TDY … received a phone call from his command about my meeting."
While intimidation can and does occur, officially there is not one policy that prevents military families from speaking to the media or Congress about the issues they are experiencing. And there are only two policies that dictate what service members themselves can say publicly, the Hatch Act and DoD Directive 1344.10.
"They [Hatch Act and DoD Directive] do not apply to spouses at all," said Sarah Streyder, executive director of Secure Families Initiative, an organization that encourages military families to get involved in the political process. Streyder is also a Space Force spouse who knows the importance of informing military spouses of their rights. "When my service member raised his right hand, I did not sign a simple form that waived away any of my political rights."
One vital military concept that may be misinterpreted is operational security or OPSEC. OPSEC provides loose guidance for how military information considered unsafe to share publicly should be protected. OPSEC rarely, if ever, applies to military family quality-of-life topics. But because there is no one to clarify what spouses can or can't say, many spouses police themselves and stay silent to feel as though they are protecting their service member.
"It is more dangerous and a higher risk to national security to let recurring problems … go unaddressed and under-communicated, because then they will never get solved," said Streyder. "These are the types of experiences that often shape recruitment and retention decisions. So, if you're going to be quiet about having black mold in your house, that's going to not increase the likelihood that it gets fixed, but rather increase the likelihood that someone else also encounters that black mold and decides to get out of the military."
She added, "That is a greater national security risk than anything else."
Not Keeping Quiet Is Our Legacy
Not wanting to get our spouses in trouble is a genuine concern, but one that military spouses have dismissed for decades. During the Vietnam War, Navy spouse Sybil Stockdale was fed up. Her husband, Adm. James Stockdale, had been taken prisoner in the Vietnamese prison known as the Hanoi Hilton and would ultimately spend nearly eight years in captivity. She and other wives of prisoners of war were told to sit tight and trust their government. However, when it became clear that the government was more interested in playing politics than bringing service members home safely, Stockdale and her fellow POW/MIA spouses bucked tradition and spoke up.
"Their actions were revolutionary at the time. Sybil and the other ladies were 'play by the rules military wives' raised on "The Navy Wife Handbook" of the late 1960s," said Heath Hardage Lee, a historian and author of "The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home from Vietnam". Lee explained that at this time the message to families was, "'Keep quiet, look pretty and don't speak out of turn.'" According to Lee, their desperation to see their husbands return home safely, combined with inaction on the part of the military, changed something in these women.
And their efforts paid off. Instead of waiting on the government to act, they engaged the civilian media. The League of Wives were among the first to disclose that their husbands were being tortured by their Vietnamese captors, a fact that the government wanted to keep from an already disillusioned American public.
"In their difficult situation, they were forced to abandon the strictures of the traditional military wife and become advocates," said Christina Bagaglio Slentz, a veteran; military spouse; and co-chair of The League of Wives Memorial Project, an organization dedicated to honoring the memory of the League ladies. "This advocacy has since become normal -- even expected -- of military spouses. … The League of Wives ladies are our foremothers, who broke the seal and paved the way for all kinds of advocacy issues to come to the forefront and make military family life better."
I can't help but hear a lot of statements in the news talking about the importance of military influencers -- parents, veterans, spouses, etc. -- leaving their audiences with a positive view of the military. They hope our words will have a positive impact on recruiting, glossing over the DoD's struggle with unsafe housing, food insecurity, too long deployments, and high rates of service member and spouse suicide.
"I think that a lot of people want to live in the happy ending," said Vega. Like today's recruiters, the work Vega does at Military Hearts Matter regularly requires her to start hard conversations with disinterested people to achieve a positive outcome, military heart health. Her approach is to lean into the bittersweetness of what can be learned from loss, allowing this loss to inform programming.
-- 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.