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Is a Spouse Military or Civilian?

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Spouse Military or Civilian
One military spouse awards another spouse with a scholarship. (DVIDS/Terence Brady)

Updated: 1/12/2021

Even after 22 years of marriage to an Army infantryman, one of our readers is still a little confused over the military or civilian thing. She wants to know, if you marry someone in the military, are you military, too? Or are you still a civilian?

This has come up more and more over the last few years. When you marry someone in the military you become a military family and you are no longer a civilian family. Does the spouse serve? No. But does the spouse make sacrifices that non-military spouses don't? Yes. So my question is this... what word would you use to define a person married to someone in the military? A military spouse? Or a military family? A civilian spouse? Or a civilian family?

I think this lady has hit on something there. Any time a spouse implies on SpouseBuzz or Facebook that he or she also serves, plenty of our readers are there to point out that the spouse is NOT in the military. You are a civilian!

Any time a blog implies that the military might curtail a spouse’s actions, spouses and significant others are quick to point out they do NOT work for the military.

Others can’t wait to zoom in on the fact that you are a reflection of your service member at a work related event. So you are military!

No, I’m a civilian! But then again I’m military! A civilian! No, no, I’m attached to the military!

Personally, I always think of myself as military. I was born into an Air Force family. I married a Navy guy at 21 -- then moved 16 times and kept our family going through eight deployments. My son joined the Army. My entire career, in fact, has been centered on the military.

Yet compared to the folks who laced into their boots today for their very first hour of basic training, I am not military. I never took the oath. I never wore the uniform. I never did one minute of patrol or even guarded an office building for practice. No one will ever, ever ask me to pick up a weapon and defend my country.

If that is the test of military or civilian, then certainly I’m civilian.

But I don’t feel like a civilian. I feel like I am part of the military.

Sociologists say that there is a reason for that. A “military” family is not defined solely by having someone in uniform in the clan. A “military” family is marked by a constellation of five factors: the frequent absence of the service member, PCS moves, international dwelling, risk of injury or death of the service member and behavioral constraints.

According to them, the more of those five factors you have, the more like your family is to define itself as “military.” This may be why we see so many younger spouses define the military as a job their service member does instead of something they themselves are a part of.

Yet I think it is a lot more than that. Maybe "military" can also be something you become just by living close to it -- like considering yourself a Virginian even though you were born in Arizona.

I don’t know. I guess those sociologists would settle the question of whether we spouses are military or civilian by referring to us as “civilian spouses of military members.” But that isn’t the whole truth.

Because somehow over time the military has seeped into my bloodstream, performed its cell division, planted itself in my bone structure. I am military.

No matter what you call me.

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