Why Military Life Is Worth It

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U.S. Navy Lt. Kaleb McConaghy, an F-18 pilot with Carrier Air Wing 5, hugs his spouse
U.S. Navy Lt. Kaleb McConaghy, an F-18 pilot with Carrier Air Wing 5, hugs his spouse upon returning to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Oct. 7, 2021. (Ann Bowcut/U.S. Marine Corps)

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

"9/11 happened, and all of a sudden everything changed," said Erin Whitehead, who spent decades as a military spouse while her husband pursued a career in the Marine Corps. "It became a much different life, much harder."

The surge of military activity that followed the attack on New York and Washington, D.C., leading to years of conflict in the Middle East would strain families as deployments and casualties mounted. But this national tragedy also sparked a sense of purpose for those in the military community.

"We'd all go to different people's houses for dinner every night because we needed to be together. It made it survivable," said Whitehead. "We became family."

Before marrying my husband, I imagined the military was what I saw in movies -- soldiers clutching rifles, ready to storm a beachhead, terrified but in it together. I knew the lifestyle was hard, but I had no idea that as a military spouse, I too would undergo a parallel bonding experience on the home front. And in speaking to others, it seemed my experience was not unique. Our shared suffering bonds military spouses to each other and the military lifestyle, if we let it.

Research shows that military spouses who feel a sense of belonging within the military community have a greater sense of overall well-being. However, building these sustaining relationships is challenging for military families who have to move away from relatives and friends and leave new connections every two to three years.

While basic training and deployments help service members develop strong, new ties and feelings of connectedness, military spouses are left on their own to find a sense of belonging.

"None of this stuff had been scripted," said Kathleen Palmer, an Army spouse who was living in Germany after 9/11.

Although there was a push to support families in the years following Sept. 11, the existing infrastructure was not prepared to deal with the post-9/11 operations tempo that saw troops away from home for extended periods. Palmer was lucky that a more senior Army spouse took it upon herself to build a community at the German base.

"There was nothing," she recalled. "And so, she actually reached out and … brought in every spouse no matter what, and that, to me, set the tone."

Palmer, who has moved 15 times over the 27 years she has been an Army spouse, said that often only other military spouses understand the pressures.

"At the end of the day, very few people are walking in our shoes, and I think that we have to really embrace everybody who's in the shoes," she said.

When that community isn't easily accessible to military families, it can severely increase the burden of service.

Jenny Lynne Stroup, deputy director of Hiring Our Heroes and a Navy spouse of 15 years, had a welcoming first experience, witnessing senior military spouses form a tight-knit community when her husband served on the USS George H.W. Bush. But when he was assigned to duty in New York City in 2013 after a tour in Afghanistan, none of the same resources and support were available, thrusting their family into a particularly trying adjustment period.

"That really set us up very poorly to function as a family," Stroup said. "It was the first time all four of us had lived together under one roof for more than like a week at a time. … We fell through the cracks."

It would have been easy for Stroup to turn this perceived abandonment into resentment, but instead, she chose to try to recreate her first positive experience. When she made civilian friends, she seized the opportunity to educate them about military life.

But not everyone has the same positive first impressions to rely on.

"The reserve is totally different; you don't have that family community," said Natalie Ealy, a Marine Corps spouse of 23 years whose husband now serves on active duty.

Part-time service means that troops are drawn from a wide range of communities, augmenting the fighting force. It also means that reserve families often aren't embedded within a military community. Ealy didn't know what she had been missing until her husband was on active duty.

"I remember when we were stationed in Hawaii, and he went to Afghanistan, it was just a bad day. I walked in, and my neighbor right away was like, 'So, I ordered pizza and you're gonna come over for a glass of wine.' … [Military spouses] just get it without you even needing to say anything."

But what helped spouses whose partners entered service before or shortly after 9/11 feel a sense of belonging may no longer resonate with younger military spouses.

"It used to be when spouses were low, we would hear things like 'bloom where you're planted,' and 'it's all an adventure'," said Corie Weathers, an Army spouse and author of "Military Culture Shift: The Impact of War, Money, and Generational Perspective on Morale, Retention, and Leadership."

According to Weathers, when Boomers and Gen-Xers share those comments, it is because they likely found friends and community support that made otherwise negative experiences more tolerable. They reinforce the idea that military life is worth it because for them it was.

"Then you've got millennials that are like, 'Hey, guys, you said this was gonna be great, but this is really hard,'" said Weathers.

When Sarah Curtis, an Air Force spouse of four years, shared her worries about having her first child without her husband around with senior spouses, she was shut down.

"I feel like I can't talk about my negative experiences because someone's always had it worse," she said. Instead of immediately rejecting the military community, she turned inward, writing a book of poems on the topic. She also focused on improving communication within her marriage.

"If we are not, like, fully in sync on the same page about things, it's a lot easier for me to be mad and resentful," she said.

According to Weathers, millennials value spending time with family more than previous generations, making time apart from service members more impactful. However, the financial stability the military provides new recruits in the current economic climate may offset some negative impacts.

"I get to stay home because of the benefits that the military has offered us," said Faith Morales, whose husband enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2018 and went on active duty in 2022. Early in her military experience, Morales struggled to find child care for their two-year-old and decided to stay home. "It's so nice to have a choice. Because I feel like, before this, I didn't have a choice."

Military spouses are diverse, as are their experiences and what makes this life worth it. However, what was true of all generations of spouses I spoke to was an eventual acceptance of the lifestyle, the good with the bad.

"I think coming to terms with the Army, and its mistress-like presence, actually has helped me," said Palmer. "You have to stop fighting it at some point and embrace it. And it's not for everybody."

What made military life "worth it" was more often than not a byproduct of military life -- friendships and personal growth vs. a direct benefit provided by the military such as health care.

"You're always going to be waiting for the next thing. Waiting for your next move. Waiting for them to come home. Or just waiting until you get out," said Curtis. "Finding happiness and finding joy has to be a choice. You're asking me on a good day. So, definitely, this life is worth it."

-- In addition to her reporting, Jennifer Barnhill is the host of Military Dinner Table Conversations, a monthly reverse town hall with military families. She is a 2023 Bush Institute StandTo Veteran Leadership Program Scholar, the editor-in-chief of the National Military Spouse Network's Career Connections Magazine, and the military spouse liaison on The League of Wives Memorial Project.

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