Military Spouses Fight Cultural Battles From Home
TONY COX, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox, in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
As the generals lead the war effort on the battlefield, their significant others at home often fight as well, for cultural changes in the military. While they face the everyday challenges of keeping families together and children calm, military spouses speak up to improve the qualities of life for others.
In a column on Slate.com, Alison Buckholtz, whose husband is a Navy pilot, recounts a story of how one military wife fought for change in the way military families welcome home those killed in war.
When Suzie Schwartz, the wife of Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz, saw a high-tension conflict between two families during what's known as a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base, she says it hurt her heart. She immediately took on the project, spearheading efforts to open the Center for the Families of the Fallen, a $1.6 million, 6,000-square-foot space that gives families a place to assemble privately before being taken to the flight line.
In a moment, we will talk with Alison Buckholtz and Suzie Schwartz. And military spouses, how do you see your role, and how are you able to effect change? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
As we said, joining us now in Studio 3A is Alison Buckholtz. She is the wife of Navy Commander Scott Moran and the author of "Standing By: The Making Of The American Family In A Time Of War." She also writes for the Deployment Diary column on Slate.com. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. ALISON BUCKHOLTZ (Author, "Standing By: The Making Of The American Family In A Time Of War"; Column Writer, Deployment Diary, Slate.com): Thank you for having me.
COX: It's nice to have you here. Before we talk about Suzie we're going to talk about her in a moment the military two years ago named its first four-star female general. More and more, when we talk about military spouses, we're talking about husbands as spouses, aren't we?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: That's absolutely right. I mean, in my book, "Standing By," I really only talk about military wives because for my generation, most of my colleagues are military wives. But more and more, you deal with husbands as well.
And a lot of them are former service members themselves who have retired and are now the at-home dad while their wives continue service. So it's a very unique demographic, and I've enjoyed getting to know them.
COX: I would imagine that in a circumstance like this, for maybe the first time, if not ever, the fathers and the dads are really beginning to see what it's like, what the women have had to go through all these years prior to now.
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: That's absolutely right. They have a lot of sympathy for us, and we have a lot of sympathy for them. I remember during one homecoming when we were out at Whidbey Island, Washington, at the naval air station there, there was a little girl there and her dad had tried to paint her nails for the mom's homecoming. And he wanted her to look so pretty, but he had no idea how to paint her nails. And what he had done is, he had taken the entire bottle of nail polish and poured it on her nails because he didn't realize that the brush was for putting nail polish on.
So it was very sweet but that's, you know, that's an example of dads really playing a new role in this world.
COX: And conversely, then, the women who are now going into, you know, duty, are finding what the roles have been for the males.
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: I'm sure you're right, yeah. I mean, a lot of the colleagues of my husband's who are female sailors and soldiers have told me some very harrowing stories.
COX: Let's talk about Suzie Schwartz for a minute. It might seem a little awkward, since she's here with us, and we're going to have her on mic in a moment, but she was standing next to her husband, the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, at a very dignified transfer at Dover. And she knew that she had to do something, and that turned out to be a very important event, didn't it?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: It did, and one of the reasons I wanted to write about Suzie is because she really spoke up for what she saw being wrong in the military. And a lot of military spouses feel that they need to be as stoic as their husbands are. A lot of military spouses feel that they need to be seen and not heard, in part not to hurt their husbands' career.
But what that means is that a lot of wrongs don't get righted because you're there on the inside as a military spouse. You know how things work, but you can't really be the one to change anything.
And so when I first met Suzie and talked to Suzie and found that she had made this tremendous effort for families - of the Center for the Families of the Fallen, it really just blew me away because I think it's the perfect example and the perfect role model for today's military spouse.
COX: Well, Suzie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. SUZIE SCHWARTZ (Center For Families of the Fallen): Thank you.
COX: That was quite that was quite something, what you did, and I don't was it I read about it, and I've heard you describe it before, but now that I have you in front of me, I wonder: Was it a spur-of-the-moment feeling? Was it something that just drove you, where you felt this needs to be corrected, and I'm the person who needs to correct it?
Ms. SCHWARTZ: It was an overwhelming feeling that evening. It really, really was. I sat in this small room, watching these families, and it was a space smaller than most people's living room. There was no place for them to get away, to look away, to be by themselves.
And I got on the plane that night, I'll tell you, with my husband, who sits right across from me, and I said: I know we're doing it correctly, we're doing it by the book, but we can do it better, and we can make it a little bit better for those families. And that was that evening, on the way home.
COX: Was there what was his reaction? Was there resistance at all?
Ms. SCHWARTZ: No, there was absolutely no resistance at all. They just don't see the same way that we see. They see that the things are working on time, that we're accomplishing the mission. The dignified transfer on the flight line is a beautiful ceremony, and it works well, and people are in awe of this short, 15-minute ceremony.
But just the facility that the people were in, it just doesn't register with them like we see, and I'm just not willing to accept that that's the best that we can do.
COX: It might be a good idea for all of us, Alison and Suzie together, to describe for the audience exactly what we're talking about and this dignified transfer, what it is and what takes place there. Can you tell us?
Ms. SCHWARTZ: Sure, I can. Families are notified, and within about 36 hours of a notification of the death of their next of kin, they travel to Dover. They did not do this prior to a year ago. The secdef changed the policy, where families are now invited to see these dignified transfers, and the government actually pays for them to attend.
So within a year's time, where we went from almost nobody attending these, and now, about 80 percent of families choose to fly to Dover to watch this short ceremony as their loved one comes off a giant cargo plane and into a van, to be taken to the mortuary. It's a very wonderful ceremony; they had just never seen it.
So they have to come, and they may be waiting for two or three hours at this facility, waiting for their turn to go out onto the flight line. And it was an old lobby of an old chapel. So it was white tile floor, blue folding chairs, fluorescent lights above their head, and most of these ceremonies are happening in the middle of the night. A lot of them are coming back for some reason - I'm not sure - they come back about 2 or 3 in the morning.
So these families are in shock. You're not going to make it better for them. You're not going to ease their pain. They're not ready to talk to you. But possibly, by making the - you know, the surroundings comfortable, you can just ease it a couple percentage points and just make it not as painful as it has to be.
COX: So now there is this wonderful, new facility that's more comfortable for what is not such a very comfortable situation.
Ms. SCHWARTZ: It is a beautiful facility. And I have to tell you, the stories that go along with this - the company that made the furniture, they said they couldn't get it to us in time, and it was going to be about a three-month delay. The president of the company went to the factory, stopped the furniture line and said, we will make this furniture first, and then we'll go back to our regular production.
People who found out about it drove from several states away to bring artwork that they wanted to contribute to this Center for the Families of the Fallen.
The American people are still wanting to give in any way possible, and this gives people a concrete way to give back.
COX: Alison, this is just one example Suzie Schwartz is talking about, of how a military wife can have an impact, a meaningful one. And it is one that you could argue, as you've already said, Suzie, makes sense from a woman's point of view because it shows a little more compassion, I think was what you were talking about.
My question is: Are there other areas that are not necessarily connected to compassion, that you as military wives are able to bring about change within the military?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: Well, yes, within the military but also, I think, within the civilian community. And that's what I've been really concerned with. I mean, when I married into the military 10 years ago, I was from a non-military family. I had all kinds of stereotypes about service members and their wives, and what that life was like.
Basically, I thought service members were just robots who followed orders, and their wives were unambitious at best, probably, you know, and that's why they followed their husbands around. But when I got to know the military community, all these stereotypes were shattered.
And what I've seen throughout the last 10 years is that there is this tremendous gulf in understanding between the civilian community and the military community in America.
And in effect, I think it is we're seeing two different Americas, one that serves and one that doesn't. And this gulf in perception has arisen since the abolition of the draft in 1973 and, you know, and it's hard to cross it.
So what I've really tried to do with my writing is close the gulf between the civilian and the military communities. And I have people coming up to me all the time since my book has come out, saying, how can we help, how can we help?
They want to help military families, especially those who are going through deployments and especially those with kids, but these civilian families just don't know how. And so that's a really critical area of education that I've become involved in.
COX: Let me ask you briefly to describe, if you can: Is there such a thing as an average or contemporary military wife? And if there is such a person, who is she?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: It's funny you should ask. I mean, I get after my book came out, I found it funny that a lot of publications called me a non-traditional military spouse. And I found that funny because all military spouses I know are non-traditional military spouses. There is no cookie-cutter military spouse anymore because I think the times we live in are so challenging, and the demands put on military families are so intense that, you know, there's no typical military family. Everyone handles it their own way.
So I mean, if there's one unifying quality that military spouses share, I think it's just that we fell in love with somebody in the military.
COX: We're going to talk more about that, and whether or not there are differences between the branches of the military in terms of the lifestyle that the wives lead.
You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, Tony Cox sitting in for Neal Conan. We'll talk more with Suzie Schwartz and Alison Buckholtz in just a moment.
And by the way, military spouses who are listening, how do you see your role, and how are you able to effect change? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Im Tony Cox.
We're talking about the roles of military spouses - some 6 percent are men - and how they often lead the fight for cultural changes in the U.S. military.
And we'd like to hear from military spouses in our audience today. How do you see your role, and how are you able to effect change? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Once again, our guests are Alison Buckholtz, author of the book "Standing By: The Making Of The American Family In A Time Of War," and she also writes for the Deployment Diary column at Slate.com. She's married to Navy Commander Scott Moran. And Suzie Schwartz, she is married to the top uniformed officer in the United States Air Force, General Norton Schwartz. You can read the article Alison wrote about her efforts to build the Center for Families of the Fallen, "The Bad Scene at Dover Where Military Caskets Arrive," and how one military wife fought to change it - all that at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Before I ask you this next question, we got an email I want to share with you both, Alison and Suzie. It's this. It comes from Julia in Grand Rapids.
She writes: I was wondering if your guests could speak what it's like for male military spouses. Do they face similar challenges as female spouses, and do they have similar support systems?
We said in the beginning of this segment that 6 percent, I think, is the number of males. Suzie, let me ask you, if you know: Is it different for the guys?
Ms. SCHWARTZ: It's different and yet the same. I have to say just before I came here, I was sitting in a luncheon with a male spouse - it was at a table, five female spouses and a male spouse - and he chose several years ago - he's retired military - that he was going to follow his wife as she proceeded her career, and he has done - he's been the president of the Officers' Spouses' Club; he's been the honorary adviser. He has done all the things, attended all the change of commands, and he has enjoyed every second of it. It was a conscious decision that he made, and he's enjoyed it.
Now, he has also decided that he's not going to try to work full time. He's worked part time but for him, he's very comfortable in that, in not working and being the spouse.
But for some, they do find that - are - is - the spouse network is heavily women, and sometimes we do lose sight and we do, let's say, manicure/pedicure items, and they push back a little bit.
But for the most part, I find that they have chosen that life, and they -really, the stresses are the same. We all would like to have good employment, and so they have the same stresses, that - it's hard to move every two or three years. So I find we have more in common than not.
COX: What would you say, Alison, is the thing that is the most challenging for a military wife to deal with?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: Well, in our case, and among a lot of the wives I talked to, it's been the tempo of the deployments during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because, you know, there's a new normal now, and things aren't the way they used to be in terms of when troops get sent out, how long they spend at home, and then when they get sent back out overseas.
And so for us personally, dealing with deployments with two small children has been a huge challenge - because, you know, kids are different at every age developmentally, but ours were 1 and 3 when my husband started deploying. They're now 5 and 7. And it really -it just doesn't get any easier with time.
COX: We have a caller. Let's take her. It's Sara(ph) from Manhattan, Kansas. Sara, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
SARA (Caller): Thank you. You know, as a military spouse, an Army spouse, one of the things that this job, for me - because I do see it as my job - has been to support the other spouses around me.
You know, I knew I would be supporting my soldier. I knew I would be raising my kids on my own some, but I never thought about helping my friends raise their kids or, you know, the fact that we do things together in ways that families do things together - you know, a couple of moms taking, you know, four kids to church and then out to lunch. I mean, it's just a completely different scenario than I thought it would be.
COX: Thank you for the call. Maybe we have another caller who might be able to add on to that, and then I can get both of you to respond to it. This is Sue in Boulder, Colorado. Sue, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
SUE (Caller): Thanks for taking me. Hello?
COX: Yes, go ahead. Did you have a question?
SUE: Well, yeah, I was telling your screener that my husband was in the Army for 26 years and was deployed three separate times to three separate warzones. And the last time was the Gulf War in 1990. And you feel very powerless when your husband goes away, even though mine was a brigade commander.
But what I did with a colleague was, we wrote an interactive workbook for children in the Fayetteville, North Carolina, school system that the counselors could use with the kids whose parents were deployed.
And as far as I know, it's still being used, and I would like to rewrite it for wider publication because sadly, we still have children with deployed parents.
And I really want to applaud your two guests for what they're doing. I think it's terrific.
COX: Sue, thank you very much for the call. One of the things that both callers seem to suggest is that for military wives, still a primary function and issue and concern is dealing with the children and the family when the husband is away. Is that the case, Suzie?
Ms. SCHWARTZ: It is true. I mean, you're dealing with the children, the families, and we also have the bigger family. I think we never forget that we are part of the Navy, the Army or the Air Force family.
So together, we do raise our children. Together, we try to help each other through deployments, look for jobs. We are very connected because we're away from home, in a strange place. Our families are far away. I mean, we're very connected, and everybody is online and doing all of that, but still, there's nobody there. You know, you can't run next door to have your cousin take care of your kids.
COX: We have another caller. This is Joe from Beckett, Massachusetts. Joe, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JOE (Caller): Yeah, I have a question just about - as a gay person, I'm wondering whether there's any kind of underground network that helps to advocate for the spouses of gay soldiers. They seem to be kind of an invisible group that you just never hear that mentioned.
COX: Joe, thank you for the call. It's a very interesting question, Alison. What about the answer to that?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: It is. It's a great question. I wish I had an answer. I just don't have any experience with that myself.
Ms. SCHWARTZ: I have no experience. I don't know.
COX: Is there - I'm asking this not because of this call - because I was going to ask this before anyway, but it sort of dovetails into it, and that's this: Is there an area where you are not welcomed to participate as a spouse, as a military spouse? In other words, in terms of - I don't know - policy, management of a base, any sort - are there areas that are just taboo, still, for military wives to become engaged in?
Ms. SCHWARTZ: I'll take this first. Well, I'll tell you right now, like, the gays in the military, Don't Ask Don't Tell, is definitely out of my lane, and it's really out of the active duty. They're doing the surveys. They'll salute smartly when a decision has been made, but we really don't influence that one way or the other.
And I don't get involved in any type of personnel matters. I have nothing to say about any kind of promotions. And I really do try to stay a little bit more - and we don't mean to sound like we only do family issues, but I'm not going to get into, you know, airplanes or flight lines or anything like that.
I do listen, and I listen at the gym, I listen in the commissary, I listen on the street. And I bring things to my husband's attention for him that I might hear, that he may never hear. But I don't get involved in many of those programs besides, you know, things that I feel like are in my lane, which are family and spouse issues.
COX: One of the other areas I'd like to ask both of you about - because you are married to officers - whether or not there is any sort of separation between ranking officers and lower-ranking personnel, if there's fraternizing across command lines. What's the story with regard to that, as far as military wives are concerned?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: Well, what we have now - you're right, and there are still some officer groups that are only for officer spouses, and enlisted groups that are only for enlisted spouses - because I think, you know, certain people have friendships already, and they want to stay in touch with the people that - who are their peers.
But what you have now are family readiness groups across the military, and the family readiness group is for the families of the entire unit. And it's not just for the spouse and the children, but it's for the parents of the sailors and soldiers, also.
And so in the family readiness group, you really kind of cross all of those boundaries that never used to be crossed: rank, age, color in a lot of ways. And so you meet a lot of people that a couple of generations ago, a typical military officer spouse would never have met.
COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION, Tony Cox sitting in for Neal Conan. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We are talking Alison Buckholtz, wife of Commander - Navy Commander Scott Moran, who is a pilot. She is also the author of "Standing By: The Making Of The American Family in a Time of War."
Also, we are joined by Suzie Schwartz, wife of Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz, the top uniformed officer in the Air Force. We have another call. Let's take it. This is Sarah(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Sarah, welcome, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
SARAH (Caller): Hi there. Thank you. I am the wife of a sergeant in the Army Reserves who's in Kuwait right now, and I'm finding that the support systems for military spouses of reservists are a lot thinner and really, you know, very remote. And it was really hard for us, especially when my husband was getting ready to deploy, because I felt like, you know, he was going through an enormous amount of stress. And what I would have really liked to have was somebody to come to my house and say, you know, here's how you can support him, here's how, you know, the things that we have ready for you. But, of course, there was nothing like that, me being so remote from any other military spouses.
So, you know, I think that that's an area, especially with so many reservists going overseas now, that really could use some, some...
COX: Some help.
SARAH: ...that needs some work.
COX: Absolutely. Sarah, thank you very much for the call. What about that? You're not dealing with reservists per se, I'm assuming, but what can you offer her?
Ms. SCHWARTZ: I'm going to jump on that, actually because I am. Yesterday, I received that same type of question, and it is a - we struggle with that with that with our Guard and the Reserve. I would like to say that there are many, many things online that we are doing. We are trying - that there are many organizations, Operation Homefront -there's a lot of organizations that are out in the communities that are specifically, really wanting to target the Guard and the Reserve.
And today I will say that within my Air Force, I did ask if I could have a giant Reserve roster to spread out. I don't know if that will happen, but I am addressing the needs of the Reserves out there.
COX: Is there something you could add to this, Alison?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: Sure, I'm active with a group called Blue Star Families, and Blue Star Families is trying to kind of close the gulf between the civilian community and the military community, and it's making a special effort to reach out to Reserve and Guard families, specifically because of this problem. I mean, all of the issues that military families face are intensified for Reserve and Guard families. And so a civilian organization like Blue Star Families, which is a national group with local chapters, might also be able to help.
COX: Here's an email that comes from South Milwaukee. It's sent to us by Gerry Anne(ph). She writes: This was many years ago, but when we moved to an Air Force base in northern Michigan, we found that foreign-born wives - spouses were all wives at that time, she goes on to explain -particularly those from Asian and Southeast Asian countries, felt lonely, isolated, bored, and not part of the community. Quite often, gambling and alcohol became a problem, which my husband, who was the base personnel officer, became very aware of.
I started a group we called International Friends. We met monthly and celebrated our cultural backgrounds and differences with, primarily, food. Many wore their native country dress. We even eventually started going to schools in town where we - primarily, they did - told the students about their countries and backgrounds. This served both the military and the civilian communities.
Gerry Anne, thank you for that. That sounds like something that would be something that you might do, Suzie, based on what you have already told us about some of your activities.
Ms. SCHWARTZ: Actually, there still are groups out there and they do still have International Day, where they come in their dress, and they have - they bring their food, but I would also have to say that they are incorporated, that it no longer - there is no separation amongst the spouses. Everyone is included these days, so I think we have come a long way on that issue.
COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Here's another email. It comes to us from Dennis, who was a U.S. Army retired. He says: I'm a daily listener, enjoying the show online from KSTX. I was on active duty from 1968 to 1988 in the Army. I was a mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation therapist. Try explaining that job to someone who thinks that all soldiers are infantry or tankers. Back in those days, spouses were dependents and viewed as baggage by many commanders, especially those overseas. I've spent seven years at one base in Germany and saw many spouses simply ordered home by unit commanders so they could refocus the soldiers' mind to the mission at hand, rather than family problems.
There was little or no support for those returning from short tours -less than three years overseas - always leaving the spouse at home, and horror stories abound from all areas of broken homes, tremendous financial problems, and seemingly unending substance abuse and the accompanying family problems. It is wonderful to know that truly significant progress has been made. I am encouraged.
This is from Dennis. So people are paying attention to what you're trying to do, Alison.
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: Well, I mean, I think that military spouses have come a long way, and you know - even just in the 10 years since I married into the military. One of the things that I found to be interesting was when I was writing my book, I was really looking around for other sources that could guide me as a military spouse today and how to live this crazy life. And I didn't find anything.
So I went back in history and I read, for example, the memoirs of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the wife of General Custer, who wrote in 1885 her experience of being a military spouse. And she writes about the same kinds of issues that we're worried about today: the civil-military divide, people who aren't in the military not knowing that there's a war going on or a campaign going on, or what the kids are going through. And that really helped put things in perspective. As much as we think that things used to be bad in the olden days, we've actually made a lot of progress.
COX: I've got one short email I'd like to close our conversation with, and I'm going to direct it to you, Suzie. It comes from Emily, and she says: Our daughter is a young newlywed whose husband is the Army and will deploy in January to Afghanistan. What advice could you give her for the year that he is gone? Can you give us a 30-second-or-less answer to that?
Ms. SCHWARTZ: I will give her - to connect with her family readiness group, and to stay involved. Find the ways to connect with those people all around her that are there to support her. There are so many people, but get in touch with those people that are your peers. The Army - all the services are doing great things for families, and to support them.
COX: I appreciate your coming in. It's been a very interesting conversation. I'm assuming that there is now more of a connection that there has - than there has been in the past between mature military wives and the younger military wives. Is that true?
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: We like to think of ourselves as seasoned military spouses.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: Seasoned, that's a good word. I think we'll end on that one. Suzie Schwartz is the wife of Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz, the top uniformed officer in the Air Force. She has worked to connect military wives with proper resources, and she joined us here in Studio A as well. We were also joined by Alison Buckholtz, wife of Navy Commander Scott Moran, a pilot. And she is also the author of "Standing By: The Making of the American Family in a Time of War," and has written a number of articles for Slate.com. Thank you both for being with us.
Ms. BUCKHOLTZ: Thank you.
Ms. SCHWARTZ: Thank you very much.
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