How to be a Great Military Spouse Advocate

people testifying before a committee
(Michael S. Murphy/DVIDS)

I’ve heard the argument that military families should be happy for what we have and that if the Defense Department (or others) gets it wrong, our “job” as spouses is to hold our noses and support the chain of command.

I suspect there are some old school military spouses who don’t believe that military spouses should be stepping out of our lane by becoming advocates on issues we care about. They don’t see it as our place.

I don’t hold to either philosophy.

While it’s always important to pick your battles, I for one have no intention of taking a bite out of a crap sandwich just because DoD tells me it tastes good.

As military spouses, we have a responsibility to take action to right a wrong or to fix a law, regulation or policy that is impacting negatively on military families.

I was on the Army Wife Network (AWN) to discuss my advocacy on behalf of military families. We focused on my work concerning the Congressionally-mandated DoD Military Family Readiness Council, my time as the 2012 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year, and the chance I had to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee last summer.

Tara Crooks, the founder of the AWN, wanted to know what made me take a stand. I told her how I got my start related to our family’s bad experience with the Air Force EFMP program and expressed how critical it is that spouses know they can make a difference.

And now, I’d like to expound on my answer. It’s not just important that you get started or you realize what an impact you can each make. You also want to be an effective advocate for the long term, whether that’s in the military world, at your child’s school or at your civilian job.

But how do you do it?

Effective advocacy takes practical, purposeful steps. And while it’s not all-inclusive and I’ve violated them all at some point, I hope the list I’ve come to call “Jeremy’s Eight Rules for Military Spouse Advocacy” is helpful.

Eight Rules for Great Military Spouse Advocacy

  1. If the people who are affected by a decision or policy change aren’t at the table, you are doing something wrong. In the disability movement, there is a famous phrase, “Nothing about us without us.” When it comes to bureaucracies, many times this concept is purposefully overlooked. Whether it’s in a spouse club, wing commander meeting or in the Pentagon, those most impacted by a policy should have a seat at the table. ’m not suggesting that the decision always has to be in the advocate’s favor, but that their input is considered. In the end, doing so is in everyone’s best interest as the decision or policy change will be better for having taken this step. Sometimes our leadership just needs that reminder.

2. We need to appreciate everyone for what they are doing, not for what we want them to do. Kids or no kids, job or no job, both sides should respect the other’s situation in life. We will all move in and out of our capability levels over time.

As an advocate, we need to meet people where they are at, not where we want them to be. There are all different kinds of capabilities and different levels of support. Be prepared when you are told “no” (and consider below rule three). We should be thankful for any help a fellow spouse can provide and not chastise them for not meeting our preconceived notion of what they should be doing.

3. Learn to say no. Not every idea is a good one. I’ve learned that many times your first intuition about a person or idea is usually a good one. Learn to say "no" to that person or idea. In the advocacy world, you are guaranteed to make mistakes, but always remember that your reputation, particularly as it relates to trust, is the most important currency you can have.

The other piece of saying “no” is that you need to maintain focus. Being an expert in one policy area is better than being an amateur in two or three.

4. When you see a fellow military spouse who wants to learn or expand their repertoire, take them under your wing and help them learn the ropes. We should be training the next generation of military spouse advocates. We certainly didn’t get to where we are without lots of support from the generations that came before us. Pay it forward and don’t be that “Queen Bee.”

5. You don’t need to, nor should you, be doing it all. Almost none of us are being paid for this advocacy work. When you stop liking what you are working on, take a break or try something else. Your family and your military family need you around for the long haul and it is exceptionally easy to get burned out.

6. Professional and concise is the order of the day. Hone your message and then deliver it. Craft your thirty-second elevator speech. Creating relationships is important but remember; the message is why you are there. Sometimes our leadership, Congress, or whomever you are speaking with would love to talk about anything but the issue at hand.

7. Senior spouses have lots to offer. So do junior spouses. Both can learn from each other and have much to offer the other end of the spectrum. Both need to listen and learn.

Really listening is such a gift and we have so much to teach each other. Don’t get hung up on the officer-enlisted divide, the “old” versus “young” spouse issue or whether one spouse has a college degree or not. Experience really does count for something, so listen when that senior spouse provides you input. You aren’t obligated to follow their counsel, but I would recommend you consider it. Likewise, many junior spouses are much more connected to what’s happening on the ground and can provide amazing input on what really matters to today’s military families.

8. We are stronger together than we are apart. “No kidding," I’m sure you are saying. However, for whatever reason, it’s a lesson we military spouses seem to forget much too often. We don’t always have to agree at the tactical level, but when it comes to strategically advocating for our families, we need to keep this rule in the back of our collective heads. In the end, we need to find a way to support each other, even when we disagree.

Some of you won’t like this list. That’s fine -- make your own. Do what works for you. But get involved. We are heading into some tough times, both as a military and as a country.

Please don’t be silent. Our voices can make a difference.

Jeremy Hilton is a Navy Veteran, Air Force spouse and advocate for military families, particularly those impacted by disabilities. He was the 2012 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year. Jeremy has written previously for Time, Huffington Post, Military Spouse magazine and Exceptional Parent magazine. He and his family live in Fairfax, VA where he is a graduate student at George Washington University.

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