The military is often seen as a completely separate culture from American society. When eyed by the media the military is mentioned as if its singularly combined demographic is only one – with one political mindset, one unified mission, a mysterious way and language, and often with specific attention to either the glory or malfunction of a person or event reflecting upon the entirety of all five forces. This essay will familiarize the reader with the military culture, its unique perspective and needs, the challenges of deployments and stressors of isolation.
The Us in “Us and Them”
More often than not, the military is seen as a separate culture from the rest of normal society. Hardly a motion picture was played in the mid twentieth century that lacked a Soldier or Sailor in its main storyline, a walk-on role, or even simply strolling through the background-creating atmosphere. Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, James Stewart, Rosie the Riveter, and other great social icons told society that serving the country was not only normal, but noble.
Today, post-1973 with the end of the draft, and post-911 with the end of the naive innocence, the military is lumped into a category of others, almost as if the label of military member describes its affiliates so completely that no other description is obliged. These They, these military men and women, are shadowed on the five o-clock news by the heroics of a merely competent 10 year-old who dials 911, or an average citizen who performs volunteer work at the local YMCA being labeled Heroes; the daily and actual heroics of the military men and women – and their families left behind – are far outside the comfort level and palate of evening consumption for normal society.
In order to retrieve these others, the misunderstood and forgotten members of society, back into the mainstream, more work needs to be done explaining the military culture, its unique perspective and needs, and the challenges of deployments and stressors of isolation that patriotic service demands. The general public needs to know that the men, women, and families serving the country are providing them with the ingredients for freedom that they may be taking for granted. This is not to force appreciation, the military families do not demand or expect that, but rather to spread the news about the hardship and sacrifice made by military men, women, spouses, and brats everyday - all day, all year, for their entire lives. Ultimately though, that They are actually still an important part of Us – the entirety of society.
Us and Them
With that said, the military family is different. The reality of long deployments, the rigors of the unknown schedule and consequence of duty, the demands of the military life on the mind, body, and spirit of her membership takes a toll on everyone involved. This striking “reality is both the glory and the crucible of military families” (Hall, 2008, p. ix).
There is something quite different in the very core life-filters of reality for the man who gets up, forgets to shave, wears an unironed shirt, but will hide it under a sports coat, and leaves for work everyday at or around 8am. He will get in around 9am(ish) with time for coffee and a smoke with his bowling buddy, Alan. He works in a very predictable, yet mildly fulfilling manner until 5pm(ish), with an hour lunch break with friends at a local restaurant or perhaps he eats a lunch box his wife prepared from last night’s casserole they ate as a family. During his day there are multiple amenities provided, because he wouldn’t have it any other way, to tide him over between the horrors of hunger, a hankering for a Coke, the nuisance of outside weather, fear of social isolation, and the stress of being out of coffee creamer. He does have a couple younger employees who report to him with progress reports, but for the most part he only knows there first and last names. He knows nothing of their families, there personal habits, or education goals. That’s fine with him; he feels it is a privacy concern and none of his business. As long as they are meeting the deadlines in the office, they can do whatever they want at home, he always says.
His wife too filters life and consequence differently. Will her husband forget to pick up the dry-cleaning and more fabric softener for the Wamsutta sheets; will be he be late for their daughter’s recital at 7pm? He never misses one. This is not to dilute the importance of these dilemmas; everyone considers himself or herself as having a life full of drama and danger, but for the military family the baseline value for stress is set at a different intensity.
They argue often about his being late occasionally, and he still hasn’t lived down missing an anniversary many years ago due to a business trip. She says that if he really loved her, he’d be home more often. She complains to her friends that he isn’t always helpful on the weekends. She doesn’t appreciate that he sometimes forgets to pick up his towels from the bathroom floor, and hates how demanding his work schedule is. He didn’t home until 6pm last Friday.
He gets up at 0430 to make formation by 0515, and physical training by 0600. Next is a quick shower at the Base gym and breakfast from the vending machine before work begins at 0645. He has to ensure he is shaven and that every decoration and accessory on his uniform is perfect; his wife prepped his uniform the night before, so it looks good. She knows all the proper measurements and placements by heart. She knows that military men and women wear their resume and family pride on his shoulders and chest; a poor showing equals a poor attitude. That is a completely unacceptable demeanor to have - ever. Work is dangerous; last week a guy doing his same job died when a mishap occurred. They don’t talk about the cause of the mishap, they won’t even the casualty anymore, he doesn’t get a name, just the casualty; he never happened; it never happened; keep working. 1030 is a meeting about another meeting later; 1215 is more paperwork about a mindless and critical task, at 1300 (1pm), having missed lunch is he told he has duty tonight because some other guy didn’t show up and he will not be able to go home until the following day. He calls his wife, who says OK, she loves him, then hangs up to takes the casserole out of the oven and pushes it into the trashcan. She and kids will order pizza tonight; Daddy won’t be home again. The candles go back into the curio, another anniversary lost. 1700 (5pm) and another rumor of a mishap at the neighboring command; a fellow he plays golf with was killed by a stray round at the practice range right here on base; no where is safe, he thinks as he pulls another file from the growing inbox. Yet, another person to awkwardly cross off the Christmas list. He calls home to tell his wife, she pretends she doesn’t remember him, but then hangs up and cries knowing he had two kids in their daughter’s dance class. 2245 (1045pm) and he is doing more inspections on parts and supplies before turning in. 0200 a call comes in for him to go downtown and pick a Sailor up from the police station for a drinking violation. 0400-0900 more legal paperwork, professional counseling to the Sailor, and his hurried pressing of yesterday’s uniform for the mandatory call to the carpet reporting on the incident to his superior officer. And on and on as the military entangles itself in the personal life and consequence of her members- he has to record what it will do to the guy in addition to the local authorities (no double-jeopardy protection for military members).
The military man would not only miss the recital completely, but his wife would not have bothered to ask him to help with her chores by picking up the dry-cleaning, or running by the grocery store; his schedule is too unpredictable. But at least he’s home this year, he was gone all last year, missed the birth of two of their three children, and has missed seven of their twelve Christmases together, and this one makes half of their anniversaries.
He sometimes forgets to pick up his towels, on days off he likes to sleep in and sometimes doesn’t do much around the house but play with the kids and watch TV. He provides as well as he can, she is proud of his devotion to duty and loves him. Her friends in the Wives Club agree with her that everything else is a trifling detail.
Deployments and Isolation
A fairly unique quality of the military families experience is the role shifting that has to take place during deployment cycles (Drummet, Coleman, & Cable, 2003; Hall, 2008). Each service has its own method of separating families; each method demands a different flavor of solution for the families involved. Navy wives baulk at Marine Corps wives, and Army wives baulk at the Air Force wives, Coast Guard wives have their own clichés and worries as well, but they all face the similar challenges when the government calls upon their family for service. He leaves (in this example) and she must take Head Of Household duties at the drop of a hat. She is challenged with not knowing when their spouse will return, worse, many worry if he will return at all. Signing the kids up for school, parent-teacher conferences, driving to basketball and tae kwon do practice, dance, tap, violin, soccer, tutoring, grocery and clothing shopping, utility bills, holiday cards and the obligations of putting on a strong face are common for all military families from the spouse to the youngest members of the family – sometimes the extended family too.
In the United States Marine Corps II MEF (said: the “Second MEF”, Marine Expeditionary Force Two), with whom this author served in the Iraq during 2007, the deployment cycles is seven months in the warzone, and seven months home. For our Coast Guard brothers and sisters the deployments can be days, weeks, or months at a time without pattern, and each patrol takes the Coastie in drug-running or terrorist gunfire, explosive hazards, chemical disposal and exposure risks, and the harshest of weather the planet has to offer (BMC Randy Keller, USCG, personal communication, January, 2010). The Army has been taxed to the limit (Hall, 2008) with initially what were to be eight-month deployments, then they became twelve, then in 2007 and 2008 they were extended to fourteen-months (that’s two Christmases in a row for some) and in 2009 they were taken back to twelve-months as if the DOA (Department of the Army) was doing them a favor. The Navy deploys on a semi-scheduled basis for weeks, then months, then leading up to 6-9 month deployments aboard various types of ship or shore operations around the world.
Through all this each family grows and changes within themselves. The military member plugs through he daily grind of whatever is asked of him or her in an effort to forget about time and stops watching the calendar – watching only makes it go by slower. But in a flurry of appointments and practices and holidays, the spouse cannot stop counting the days, they are counted for her, and blaring in her face how long he’s been gone, and how long it will be until he gets back. In a sense, the family can be considered to have it harder than the service member during deployments.
It is hard to quantify which is worse, the deployment and absence of the member itself, or the isolation everyone in the family must face during each stage of the deployment cycle. Family members may feel that they are alone in the feelings, worries, challenges, and hardship being confronted physically and psychologically. Each family member may feel shame for feeling sad, angry, or even betrayed about the deployment (Hall, 2008). Isolation does not only mean the reality that phone and Internet conductivity may limit communication and understanding. Sometimes families are forced “try to obtain information from the media” (p. 165) about what their loved ones are doing. This can lead to scary, false, or bloated information about the dangers being faced. For the member’s part, the isolation from their children growing up, important family or religious traditions and holidays, as well as the general motion of societies engine back home can lead to a bewilderment and isolation upon return when it appears the real world has passed them by (Drummet, et al., 2003). Isolation can come from the surrounding community’s lack of understanding about what the family is going through and unique demands the children of deployed parents have upon them. A central strength of real-time and post-event counseling is the defining moment when the service or family member is able to understand that he or she is not isolated in a crowd, but rather surrounded by people feeling the same (and perfectly normal) way, going through the same (and perfectly normal) processes of depression, apathy, resentment, stress, and “increased stress, sickness, or [even] injury” (Hall, 2008, p. 171). Counseling can turn these negative feelings into positive emotions and events with a better understanding of their causes.
Prepping the Incoming Family
It is these causes that must be explained in a non-judgmental way to the potential military family. The rewards of a life of patriotic service cannot be explained, only experienced, but the values system that it takes to sustain that level of commitment can be explained and outlined. Unlike the medias’ handling of military members, families, units, missions, political points of view, and cultural dogma, each service member and each family member is a snowflake. They are all different.
“[T]he devotion, the sacrifice, and the dilemmas that make these remarkable people and their families who they are” (Hall, 2008, p. xv) is something to be both envied and pitied. Yet, for many, including this author and his wife (a lifetime Navy family and both lifetime-recovering military brats), would not have it any other way. Couples or blended-families considering adopting the military lifestyle need to be made aware of the deployments, stark hours of boredom followed by moments of horror, and the infrequent thanks and understanding from their soon-to-be former friends – who will no doubt fade into the background after the first or second of a dozen relocations required during an average career. Their family will either “get it” or they will not; in either case, what must become central to the family is the mutual understanding and reliance upon each other. This is no trivial line, unlike in a civilian existence where one can fall back on lifetime locations and friends for comfort, there will be a time in every military family’s life where there is literally no one else to turn to except each other. This quantity of isolation can either enforce or destroy the relationship; civilians can take a “time out” – a military couple, for the good of the “two-person career” (Hall, 2008, p. 77) must not stray from the inner-circle least everything they worked for is lost. Their friends will either support them, or they will ignore them. New duty assignments will either be fantastic, or lack-luster, in either case they need only be tolerated for a few years. Some decisions about political connections and educational opportunities will affect the rest of their life just as much as the choice to have children. There is also an amazing amount of intrusion into the personal life of military families. A DUI can be a career-ender, whereas as civilian working for Bell Telephone need only worry about his or her actual work performance in order to stay upwardly mobile.
All said and done, the military is likely the most welcoming fraternity of families in American society. In places where it does not match the American demographic make-up “it exceeds America” (Hall, 2008, p. 27). As welcoming as it is, the military lifestyle is not for everyone. It takes a distinctive level of patriotism to tolerate some of the thankless tasking, and to excel in the face of hateful people who still need your presence, one must be able to deliver clean water and rice to people whose sons are shooting at you while you deliver it. One must be able to accept holidays alone, and going to parties because it’s mandatory.
Also mandatory are all the benefits and these should be outlined before the man or woman signs the contract as well. College money for the active member, spouse, and kids is available and the apparently low pay includes tax benefits and medical and dental care which put it ahead of many of their civilian counterparts (Vinch & Walser, January 11, 2010). Amusement park and shopping discounts may appeal to some, the social consistency as a bonus of living on base where one can expect all his or her neighbors to have similar styles, and standards for their children may attract others. But the idea is not to recruit people into culture, it would be more beneficial for the military in the long run, and the potential family in the short and long term to make the decision based on personal and cultural factors free from financial or political considerations.
There are opportunities for military brats that other children are lacking and civilian brood appear privy to certain advantages military brats are not. But one of them is not roots. This author is a Navy brat, his wife is an Air Force brat and our three children are Navy brats ages 5, 6, and 8 – born in Guam, Mississippi, and Oklahoma; they have been to more countries than most people have been states and can say thank you in nine languages – and growing. To travel, for many military families similar to this one, is a gift not a hardship. Changing schools midstream is a short-term challenge all Brats must face, but it usually passes in importance within weeks of arrival. New friends are found as fast as old ones are forgotten. Birthday parties are usually parental gathering where some of the child guests are meeting the birthday kid for the first time. The streets on Base are safe, free from crime and speeders; the children learn a level of independence very early without the burden of having to leave ‘street smarts’ too soon.
In Hall (2008) Mary Wertsch, as part of her introduction, has an excellent discussion about the strength of the root system in the life of a military brat. There is a distinct culture in the military of personal responsibility, accountability, and an adherence to authority that maybe more pronounced than inside the walls of the average civilian home (p. xi). This multi-ethnic and multi-culturally education base is as powerful a determinant of the child’s propensities as if he or she were raised in one home, in one school, in one church, mosque, or synagogue surrounded by the same people. Brats are able to maintain stability of nature because even though the geography and the faces change every few years, the culture from base-to-base doesn’t. Naturally, there are challenges, but this author contends that to mark them as any more than slightly above average is the insult the difficulty parents of every calling have raising the next generation. Military Moms and Dads love their kids as much as other parents, they do their best (hopefully) as much as other parents (hopefully) do. Kids rebel and dress funny and listen to funny music and have since there was a radio invented to dial poorly and turn up too loud. These challenges are not unique to the military family, only magnified by the stressors of deployments, unpredictable absence, perceived and actual danger, and political pressure to perform to please a parent whose life is dependent on attention to detail and timeliness. That is the challenge of both the parents and brats however.
The traditional military person and family are often seen as a separate culture from American society and in some ways, they are. But the home and professional life of a military member and his or her family is anything but traditional. That is, anything but traditional to the standard American ideal of traditional. For the military member, spouse, and brats it is traditional. Their cultural traditions of the “unquestionable [nature of]… the nobility of service to one’s country helps all military people justify the difficulties and sacrifice” (Hall, 2008, p. x). The struggle to understand and appreciate this is the responsibility of the civilian recipients of the benefits from this service, not the duty of the government’s benefactor. It is only his or her duty to provide it, not explain it. Counselors must attempt to understand it and be courageous enough to admit when they do not. This honesty will best assist the survival of the health for the clients, while not disrupting the delicate traditions and values in a potentially foreign culture.
Drummet, A. R., Coleman, M., & Cable, S. (2003). Military families under stress:
Implications for family life education. Family Relations. 52(3) 279-287.
Hall, L. K. (2008). Counseling military families. New York: Routledge of the Taylor &
Francis Group, LLC.
Vinch, C., & Walser, C. (2010, January 11). Your guide to pay and allowances. Navy
Times, pp. 21-43.