In 1985 the Navy asked how I felt about life as a military spouse. Their survey made me feel like I mattered, though I’d heard it whispered at Wives’ Club functions that we did not. Our men kept America safe for democracy by plowing circles under the sea for President Reagan. The job was a game of “cat and mouse on the high seas,” my husband said. “See who blinks, and nobody gets hurt.”
Submariners willingly inhabit an inhospitable environment for months on end with no sunshine, no fresh air or food, and, in those pre-cyber days, no communication with the civilian world. They’re one open hatchway from sinking, as nearly happened to my husband’s first boat just before he reported for duty. And then there’s the nuclear reactor.
The survey presented me with perhaps a dozen categories to rate from one to five, with one being “depressed” and five being “ecstatic”. That word, ecstatic, was one I considered for a long time regarding our salary. Back then, a Lieutenant JG submariner earned $2,000 a month plus free medical, dental, and pharmaceutical benefits for the family. Twenty-five dollars at the commissary bought groceries for a week. My student loan was our only debt aside from the mortgage on our tiny home, and we’d opened a college fund for the baby. My parents, by contrast, had only a hassock when they bought their first place. She used it while he perched on a fire extinguisher that came with the place. They slept on the floor for a month and chilled baby bottles in the snow. Their genesis story had always struck me as romantic. Mine struck them as incredible. Some of my husband’s peers complained about finances, but they drove BMWs and furnished their Dutch Colonials at Ethan Allen.
We were lucky to homestead in the same port for five years. Friends in base housing said the roaches were big enough to saddle. They also said it was foolish to think we wouldn’t end up moving precipitously. They were right. Another thing they said—if there was a death in the family, it better be someone damn close or the Navy wouldn’t risk sending a copter to HUMEVAC him. What with the wind and waves and swinging basket, it was too dangerous.
I wondered what my husband would make of the survey, but my weekly FamilyGrams didn’t allow for conversation. They were about milestones: first steps and burst pipes kinda stuff. You can’t say much in forty words—make that thirty-eight, the first and last being our names. He got a bonus telegram when the baby was born. The captain had said he could come home early if I hadn’t delivered by the time they pulled into port, but seeing as how she came early, he had to stay in Scotland for a big inspection.
She was a sensitive baby: crying when I changed her, squirming when I cuddled her, and screaming when I bathed her. She had her days and nights confused and couldn’t get the hang of nursing. I blamed myself. The other wives assumed I must be overjoyed, but deep inside, I just felt like crying. Her birth certificate remained blank for ten days until her father returned.
All things considered, though, I was content. It would have been nice to manage that branch library by the base, but the job offer came two hours after I learned I was pregnant, and I couldn’t justify putting a newborn in daycare with one parent already gone six months a year. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t reach him to discuss it. I was lucky to have been asked at all, discrimination against military spouses being a thing. Why hire you when you’re just going to move, employers said. My old boss warned me when I got engaged not to waste my talents. Her own mother, the general’s wife as she called her, used to phone each morning at our busiest time because she didn’t understand what it meant to have a job.
I thought her mom sounded happy; sheltered maybe, but happy. Not like my friend Pam who, after twenty-five years of marriage, gave me the miniature gold dolphin insignia that had been part of the well-dressed-officer’s-wife wardrobe. Her husband had left his family for the Chief’s wife next door. Fortunately, Pam had a nursing degree to fall back on. She said she had no regrets: Hawaii, Europe, flying lessons, lifelong friendships. On the flip side, she warned that the higher a man rose in the ranks, the more susceptible he was to temptation. She’d heard one young officer’s wife brag that she would make her husband an admiral by sleeping with all his commanders.
Of course, it wasn’t always the men who did the leaving. They sometimes came home to an empty house and bank account. I knew a clergywoman who left her husband, an Air Force pilot, during the Vietnam War because she was uncomfortable with what he had to do over there. She viewed her subsequent poverty and loneliness as the price of conscience, a notion she voiced carefully,as if afraid to put ideas in my head. But that was then, and this was the Eighties. My husband didn’t have to do anything unconscionable. He just carried the proverbial big stick.
So, how did I feel about his pay? If it were just the money, I’d have been tempted to say ecstatic, but you can’t put a number on sacrifice. I rated it a four out of five. Hardship, we believed, was the price of freedom, and we were paid accordingly. Even so, one sailor I recall shot himself in the foot rather than go back out to sea.
For Military Family Month in November, President Trump issued a proclamation of support for the brave heroes and their families who defend freedom around the world, conveniently erasing the public ridicule and contempt he expressed toward a POW statesman and to the parents of a Gold Star soldier. Since then, he described the traumatic brain injuries sustained by 64 soldiers in Iraq as no casualties (later, headaches), and is reported to have called top military officials losers and a bunch of dopes and babies. In an administration marked by unprecedented turnover, a substantial number of his departed advisors had occupied defense and foreign affairs posts. Many resigned before they could be forced out for disagreeing with a boss whom they regard as “both ignorant and capricious”; a Commander-in-Chief who who tweets that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do.” It should come as no surprise that his popularity with veterans and active duty is waning.