Why I Don't Want to be Like Our 'Old School' Sisters


“Old School” military spouses are kind of like unicorns: a lot of people want them to exist. Hollywood producers want them to exist so badly they created "Army Wives," a ridiculous TV dramas based entirely on this fictional caricature. But old school military spouses, like unicorns, probably never existed and if they did, I am not so sure they should have.

Romanticizing the past is something that should be done very carefully. Usually the past was not better than today and usually progress is a wonderful thing, especially in our American military.

A recent SpouseBuzz post written under a pseudonym by a modern Army spouse titled “5 Things Military Spouses Could Learn From Their 'Old School' Sisters," did just that: it romanticized the past, a past that often was not as we remember it. The post listed five things we “newer spouses” should “cultivate” from the military wives of long ago. They were: patience, appreciation, dignity, respect for and pride in your servicemember, and, finally, manners.

I am positive that the Army wife who wrote that post is an exceptional and strong woman, and it is obvious that she was not trying to return us to a time that sidelined and cared little for military wives and families.

I might even know this Army wife. And I am sure that at a game of Bunco I would get on with her fabulously. After all, she and I, (and my “old school sisters" for that matter), do actually have a lot of real things in common that have very little to do with the five superficial things she cited, and are about a million times more important. They are things born from endless years of war, from loss, from sacrifice, from loneliness, from injury, from damage, from constant moving, from isolation, from fear, and honor ... real things.

So I respectfully take issue with her five superficial things that our old school sisters could teach us. Because to even suggest that our old school sisters were somehow more refined than us is like believing in a unicorn -- it’s a myth.

Here they are, point by point.

What's wrong with being like our "old school" sisters?

She said "patience:" I know many of you can’t fathom a life free of cell phones, Skype, email, Face Time, etc., but believe it or not, there WAS a time where our Old School Sisters relied on paper, ink and stamps exclusively. Sometimes it took months for letters to be exchanged and every word of those were read and re-read again, cherished and tucked away for future generations to read. We of the instant gratification generation demand daily communication. We are spoiled and impatient. A little patience goes a long way for the heart, mind and spirit- our Old School Sisters had it, and we should learn to cultivate it”

I say: We “newer” spouses have learned patience. We learned much of it growing up, just like anyone else, but a number of us really honed our patience skills during our own combat tours in Iraq -- that’s right, our combat tours. In fact, this modern Army wife and prior servicemember can vividly recall a time when all she had was a dirty truck, pen and paper. I wrote many letters to my husband during the beginning of the war and spent weeks patiently attempting to park my platoon of dirty trucks and soldiers at any camp that was lucky enough to offer mail service. I would have loved to have email in 2003. Many of us new military spouses embrace new technology. And, yes, we may never pen another war letter -- but so what? The printed out emails between a deployed soldier and their spouse, or reading a book to your 2-year-old over Skype are kinda the same thing, right? Maybe they are even better.

She said "appreciation." Hearken back to the day where there were no FRGs, no Child Development Centers, no MWR facilities or activities- basically you had a house and that was it. And let’s not forget being notified by telegram of the death of a service member instead of in-person by a Casualty Notification team”

I say: Again with romanticizing a past that cared little for the sacrifices of military spouses -- no thank you. It is not a good thing that my old school sister whose husband was fighting in Vietnam had nowhere to go for support when her car broke down and two of her three children got the stomach flu. I am proud of the advances our military has made in terms of caring for military families and servicemembers. It has made us a superior and stronger military. An Army base in 1965 is not somewhere I ever want to revisit, and we should fight hard to ensure that it never again becomes a reality. There was nothing romantic about it.

She said "dignity:" Old School Wives wore suits or dresses, hats, white gloves, and the dreaded stockings (not pantyhose — stockings) every day at some point. Be happy those standards have lessened, but let’s not take the lax dress requirements of modern times to the extreme. A ball isn’t a night club — it’s a formal military event which has ceremonial aspects to it. Don’t walk in looking like you’re looking for the nearest pole to swing on.”

I say: Hmmm, it seems to me that dignity is something one either has or does not. And it has little to do with being an old school military wife, or a 19-year-old military wife who wore a “club” dress to the ball. What a person wears rarely coincides with the amount of dignity in their soul. I am very sure that our old school sisters didn’t always wear dresses and stockings, in fact they probably wore jeans and shorts quite often ... but no one ever saw them, as they rarely left the house. Again, the past is not somewhere  to which I am interested in returning. So I say to the new spouses: go ahead and pull your hair back, wear you’re running shorts and a smelly sports bra to the commissary and be thankful you’re allowed use the base gym.

She said "respect and pride in your service member:" This one gets people all kinds of riled up. I know spouses who think it’s their job to talk about how crappy the military is, how much they hate it, how much they are against the wars, etc. That’s fine and dandy. But do you really need to share that constantly with your fellow military spouses and, especially, your service member?” I say: Should we complain to other military spouses or our  servicemember about how “crappy” the military is? Actually yes, I do feel that it is 100 percent OK to dissent and moan about a war that has lasted 10 years and has perhaps damaged your servicemember beyond repair. I also feel that it is absolutely 100 percent OK to do this on any military base, in front of any officer or NCO's wife or husband, and especially with your servicemember. After all, who the hell else are you going to talk to about this stuff? The 99 percent of America who have no connection to this war? Give me a break, I say go for it. If you feel the military has given you or your servicemember a crappy deal, say so. If you feel that multiple year-long deployments are crazy, unsustainable and detrimental, say so. If you feel that it is wrong that your servicemember, who has not slept in 14 months, cannot get the appropriate mental care  she needs, than yell as loud as you can, and do so at the very next Bunco game you go to.

She said "manners:" This is the most simple, and the most abused by modern military spouses. If you get an invitation, respond. Respond “yes” or “no.” How hard is that? Apparently, extremely, since most people I know at some point either complain that people didn’t RSVP, or confess they themselves didn’t RSVP”. 

I say: Much like the author’s observations on “dignity," I feel that people are either polite or they are not. I am pretty sure that in 1945 plenty of our old school sisters were downright mean, just like many spouses are today. In fact, a few modern military wives who enjoy glamorizing this myth of the polite and refined  old school sisters recently lacked a whole bunch of “manners” when they attempted to bar the wife of a senior decorated female Army officer serving on Fort Brag from their local Officer Spouse’s Club because she was gay. Now if that doesn't qualify as rude, I don’t know what does. In 2013 most military spouses still have “manners," RSVP and send hand written "thank you" notes because they were raised right, or because they learned to do so in their own profession. But just as some do not today, not everyone in 1945 had great manners.

Why old school sister worship doesn't make sense:

Frankly, I don’t want to take any advice from my old schools sisters, because I think they would have given their right arm for a child care center, a Commissary, the ability to wear shorts to the PX on TwentyNine Palms, Calif. in August, or the ability to tell someone they lived next to that they “hated” Marine Corps life and that the fact that their husband might die tonight thousands of miles away because his Commander failed to ensure he had the proper tactical gear scares the hell out of her.

Our military has profoundly changed and that is a wonderful thing.

Today’s military spouses thankfully have very little in common with the women (they were all women) of the 1940′s, 50's, 60′s, 70′s, 80′s or even the 90′s. In 2013 many of us are decorated combat veterans ourselves as well as military spouses. Many of us are men and many of us are gay.

This war has produced multiple and long deployments (also different from any past war), social media makes hiding the truth difficult (sexual assault and mental illness in our ranks), soon Major Jones and his husband will be on the list for officer housing, and very soon women will be commanding our husband’s Infantry units.

We are charting totally new territory and I wish to take ALL commands from the current, wholly different, and evolved population of military spouses. I love my Army all on my own, (after all, I served in it).

So while I can learn how to make a crafty handmade "thank you" note on Pinterest, I don’t believe in this mythical creature known as the “Old School” military wife, or unicorns, for that matter.

 Shelly Burgoyne is a prior service Army wife and combat veteran. Portions of this post were originally published on her blog Sonoran Switchback.

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