Could Military Spouses Fix DoD's Recruitment Problem?

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Answer the Crazy Questions People Ask Military Spouses
Spouses performing a ski at a Spouses' Dining-In event at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. (U.S. Air Force/Jacob Wongwai)

Jennifer Barnhill is a freelance military family reporter and researcher, who is writing a book about the experiences of military spouses. She 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.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

The Department of Defense has a recruitment and retention problem. It's not simply a byproduct of the sacrifices required of service or because Americans are overweight drug users, though officials often use those excuses. It's a result of reliance on outdated military traditions that leave the services chained to an America that no longer exists.

In 2022, military service members and families face food insecurity; unsafe housing conditions; contaminated drinking water; military spouse unemployment that is roughly eight times the national average; and separation from family members, despite the U.S. not being a nation at war, all while putting their lives on the line for our country. Military family quality-of-life efforts are bolded, featured prominently as top-line efforts in DoD memos, but not DoD budgets.

With those hardships weighing on military families, no service branches are meeting their recruitment quotas, the service academies' application rates have fallen and the DoD reports only 9% of youths ages 16 through 24 report being likely to serve, the lowest "propensity to serve" rates since the nation learned of Abu Ghraib and started to become disillusioned with the War on Terror in the mid-2000s.

The knee-jerk solution to issues of retention and recruitment is dangling taxpayer dollars like carrots. But this misses the point. After decades of war and a social media-inundated world that gives the American population unprecedented access to the military experience, what if the nation has simply lost respect for the military institution?

Some military leaders blame this most recent reduction in service recruiting on the post-pandemic labor market. Others cite "rising obesity and drug use among the American public" that result in many would-be recruits not qualifying for service. Yet, obesity has been an issue in America since the 1980s, and drug use is just as ubiquitous as McDonald's. Others blame bad media coverage. OpEds written by retired generals or Navy historians put the onus for improving recruitment numbers on the shoulders of military veterans and families who should be touting the positive benefits of service.

Military service certainly has countless benefits, but a lack of good word-of-mouth marketing or negative press is hardly the reason for this decline in public opinion. All explanations assume the problem is in the recruiting or a defect with the American population, not in the service itself.

Congress' solution to the DoD's falling approval ratings is a nearly 5% pay increase, a top-line item featured in the proposed 2023 defense budget. It makes sense: Pay and benefits are the No. 1 reason to enlist cited by would-be recruits in a 2021 DoD survey. While this money would certainly help ease the struggles faced by many families who are suffering an acute need, it is a Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem: military tradition.

The military systemically relies upon historically gendered traditions to keep the military machine moving forward. Public support is quite literally drummed up when soldiers appear at baseball games for the national anthem. Images of military families holding welcome home signs or folded American flags embody the sacrifice and honor of family service. The military relies upon these traditional images to create a feeling of pride in one's country that leads to a desire to serve.

However, studies show that millennials and G-Zers prioritize diversity and equate the stuck-in-the-mud-ness of status quo with disdain, not respect. As a result, the decision to serve may be less a proactive choice than a sometimes necessity. Combine these changing generational motivations with the structural reliance on following orders without question and very public floggings of military leadership for failing their personnel, and younger generations of would-be recruits likely dismiss military service before they even consider it. This is why the military relies heavily upon a tradition of recruiting from within military families and why military spouses are the key to preventing a draft.

Fixing the Problem

The 5% military pay increase is essential to cure the ills caused by the mobile lifestyle. But it shouldn't take an act of Congress to ensure that DoD budgets are spent on warfighters, not just on fighting wars. This proposed pay increase is Congress' way of legislating the military mindset. But it will fail. Not for lack of effort, but for an organizational structure that puts "people problems" at the bottom of the pile.

A modern military mindset would not ask military families struggling to put food on the table whether they are budgeting properly. It would routinely and frequently update cost-of-living calculations.

A modern military mindset would not ask military spouses to volunteer their time to fill an essential operational mission while wondering why military spouse unemployment rates are so high. It would pay them for their efforts.

A modern military mindset would not wait until the media catches wind of unsafe housing conditions before acting. It would proactively engage families and correct the problem before it is a PR nightmare.

The military can't publicly talk about putting "people first" if it doesn't know how to treat people outside of an "operational" mentality.

Modernizing the military mindset is the key to military readiness and retention, but it will take more than money. It will take the military stepping back from the organizational structure that has served it well for centuries to find a way to see people as people, not just instruments of war or human baggage. The military spouse experience highlights just one area of unmet need housed under the nearly $8 billion military institution.

(Un)Changing Military Traditions

The military is full of traditions that, like nostalgia, are powerful motivators. They are visceral and have the power to make us overlook the negative aspects of our positive memories, and they are held onto tightly. The raising and lowering of the American flag during colors or presenting the flag during a ceremonial event are powerful traditions that can make even the most partisan American feel pride in their country.

Military traditions in particular are fiercely protected because these practices are directly linked to the organizational structure, the chain of command. Modernizing traditions could disrupt order. And when following orders means life or death, this tradition is linked to one of our basest instincts, survival.

It is this traditional mindset, however, that permeates every aspect of service, not just the life and death moments experienced on the battlefield. It is this traditional "operational" thinking that is stiff-arming would-be recruits. But who am I to say? I don't wear a uniform. I don't serve. To the DoD, I'm "just" a military spouse. And it is this perception that families depend upon service members and not the other way around that contributes to the military retention and recruitment problem.

I remember walking up to the ticket desk smiling. I was taking my six-month-old and two-year-old to a North Carolina zoo. The three of us had flown from the Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan to the U.S. to visit family while my husband was deployed on an aircraft carrier for months on end. The trip provided a needed break and was an admitted luxury that many in our community could not afford.

In one small sense, the trip was easy. I did not have a job that would have required me to request time off, because finding a job in my field overseas was virtually impossible. More impossible was finding child care that would allow me to hold a job. So 13 hours later with two toddlers, two car seats, two suitcases, a stroller, a diaper bag and an entertainment backpack, I got a break.

I approached the counter and asked whether I could utilize the military discount that was prominently displayed on the ticket booth. The worker said, "Oh, you're just a spouse. This discount is only for the active-duty service member." In one sense, it wasn't a big deal. It was an additional $10 that I could afford. However, it was the idea that I was "just" a spouse and somehow my role within our military family unit was not essential to my husband's successful service. I had no job, lived a world away from my support network and was a de facto solo parent. The military depended on me to drop everything I had on my plate, so my husband could drop his responsibilities on my plate and serve our country. So I silently embraced the suck, as we do.

Military spouses are not supposed to have public opinions about the military. And as a result, most military-related opinion pieces are written by high-ranking military officers, disgruntled personnel or veterans whose non-active-duty status gives them the relative freedom and the requisite courage needed to -- lovingly -- speak out against the monolith that is the Pentagon.

Military spouses are on the outskirts of the military, but we have peripheral access and we see a lot. If America understood what military families do and what is expected of us, it would betray how far behind the times the military truly is and how much oversight is needed to modernize military traditions.

Military Spouse Traditions: Unpaid Female Labor and 'Othering' as Policy

Since the Revolutionary War, the United States military has benefited from the unpaid labor of military spouses. While the rest of the nation has limped away from the 1950s housewife trope, policies that govern military families have not.

Military spouses, who are 92% female, are tasked with (wo)manning the homefront, caring for children and banding together when duty calls, all while balancing the upheaval caused by PCS moves that pop up every two to three years. However, this "take care of one's own" mentality extends far beyond baking casseroles for a new neighbor, with more organized volunteer efforts filling in shortfalls in Department of Defense programming and staffing.

"When my husband first took his first command, I realized and noted the needs of the new spouses coming into the squadron," Verenice Castillo, founder of the Military Spouse Advocacy Network (MSAN), a nonprofit dedicated to mentoring and supporting military spouses through the military life cycle, said in a 2020 interview. "[Military spouses] were afraid and resentful and that prevented them from participating [in military life]. MSAN was born out of the desire to be proactive to help and educate new spouses."

Castillo observed new spouses getting caught in a web of red tape, something that would negatively impact their perceptions of military life, ultimately negatively impacting military retention and readiness. As the saying goes, "Happy wife, happy life" -- or more appropriately, "happy spouse, happy house." So Castillo got to work. She formed a nonprofit that filled in essential gaps in military support programming and was ultimately recognized and embraced by the Air Force for her efforts. She did all this for free, for eight years.

She went unrecognized not because there was no need to fill, but because the DoD did not acknowledge that the function MSAN provided was an operational one.

Time and time again, my reporting revealed the same thing. Military families are not seen as part of the operational mission of the military. Their contributions and support are expected, but they are also held at arm's length. Our problems are recognized only when there is national outrage. Because tradition says we are not a part of the military, we are "othered" and labeled "dependents'' on military paperwork. But military families are not the only ones who don't belong to the military. Anyone who isn't on active duty is an "other."

When we are othered, we can be forgotten. Veterans fight for medical care after being exposed to burn pits. Gold Star family members are kicked off installations after the death of their service member. Active-duty family homes can be filled with mold without raising an eyebrow. We can drink contaminated water for months without being notified. We can experience 20% unemployment rates for years, but are expected to volunteer our time to "support our service member."

I love being a part of the military community, but I despise the traditional military mindset that sees me only as a "dependent."

This same mentality tells active-duty members to hide medical conditions to avoid medical disqualifications; sees a transitioning service member as a hot potato, to be thrown at the VA; and hides Gold Star spouses from the community, lest they remind the rest of the high cost of service and bring down morale.

However, rather than being born of malice by white men laughing from their seats at the proverbial table, these racist/ableist/gendered messages have simply been allowed to fester, hiding in plain sight, in the familiar, in the comforting … in tradition. Tradition says military spouses and children are dependents, but reality shows we are essential members of the military family unit. Modernizing these traditional mindsets is the only way the DoD will solve its "people problems" and continue to recruit from within the military family.

I don't pretend to have all the answers, and luckily the DoD would not expect me to have them. I'm "just" a military spouse after all.

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