RENEE MONTAGNE: And times are tough for families around the country. In our next report, we're going to take a look at the particular challenges for women whose husbands are in the military. There's the stress of repeated deployments and long months of managing a household alone. There's also the reality of frequent moves, which can make it difficult to put down roots or develop a career. As part of NPR's collaboration with member stations covering the local impact of war, David Sommerstein reports from Fort Drum in Upstate New York.
DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: At Jefferson Community College near Fort Drum, Carmen Blackmore(ph) leaves her marketing class with the sigh. Blackmore spent a decade pursuing an accounting degree. She's attended seven schools in as many states.
MONTAGNE: It's embarrassing because when you tell someone, you know, like, oh, how long have you been in school? Oh, since, you know, I graduated in '98.
SOMMERSTEIN: Carmen's married to Army Staff Sergeant Clifford Blackmore(ph). Every few years, he's assigned to a new post. And with each move, Carmen has to start over, with paperwork, with credits that don't quite transfer. Meanwhile, any job requiring a college degree is out of reach.
MONTAGNE: If it says bachelor's degree, then I'm like, oh, well, I have a couple more years until I can apply for that job, so.
SOMMERSTEIN: Carmen Blackmore's story illustrates just one of the professional challenges facing military spouses. A dozen women chat and laugh at a local restaurant. This is a coffee for the wives of Fort Drum's 132 battalion. Tracy Granger's(ph) husband is the executive commander. She says gone are the days of men training for the battlefield while the wives stay at home.
MONTAGNE: I mean, just at this table right here, I mean, this is a dynamic group of women: a lawyer, a full time student, a baker, a master's degree in public administration.
SOMMERSTEIN: Most of the women around the table have made career sacrifices because of their husband's military service. Teachers lose tenure and certification when they move. Businesswomen have to rebuild their clientele. Katie Horgan(ph) is a nurse. She has to work the night shift.
MONTAGNE: Because I've moved around, I don't have any seniority. With unionized hospitals, if you come in and you've only been there couple a months, you're lowest on the totem pole.
SOMMERSTEIN: All these women say they're proud of what they have given up for the military. But the career obstacles do take a toll, says Laura Dempsey(ph). Her husband, Jason(ph), is a major. She is a lawyer. She says she has spent tens of thousands of dollars passing bar exams in four states.
MONTAGNE: You really start to feel like you are sort of trying to slosh through mud to get to not even where your peers are. I mean, it's almost impossible to keep up with people who are staying in one place.
SOMMERSTEIN: According to a RAND Corporation study, military spouses earn less than their civilian counterparts. And they're more likely to be unemployed. Dempsey calls this the spouse tax, and she says it's hurting the military's ability to groom its future leaders.
MONTAGNE: These are the boots on the ground, issues that come up with families when they are having that conversation. Do you want to make major, do you want a battalion command? Or are we going to go and move closer to our families and try to get a house and live just like our civilian counterparts do? It's an agonizing decision.
SOMMERSTEIN: That reality is reflected in a recent Army report on the retention of officers. It projects a 20 percent shortfall of majors, a 10 percent shortfall of captains. Some of that's attributed to the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but family is a big factor.
SOMMERSTEIN: There's a lot of research that shows that the satisfaction of the spouse with military life affects the retention of military personnel.
SOMMERSTEIN: Mady Wechsler Segal is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. She studies military families.
SOMMERSTEIN: If the spouse is not earning enough money, is not getting the kind of job that he or she likes, if they are dissatisfied, they are more likely to leave.
SOMMERSTEIN: The military has already responded with a range of programs to help spouses from job banks and career counseling to partnerships with private companies. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee says Congress needs to step up too.
SOMMERSTEIN: These are real-life issues that these families who are put through so much are dealing with. The military does a great job trying to deal with the needs. But we in Congress have the ability to actually create financial incentives.
SOMMERSTEIN: Corker has co-sponsored legislation that would give tax credits to companies that hire military spouses. It would also create incentives for businesses to allow military spouses to telecommute. Congress has made some progress. It passed the G.I. Bill that allows military education credits to be passed on to spouses. Attorney Laura Dempsey says Congress needs to do even more.
MONTAGNE: You're losing an entire generation of junior officers and potentially senior officers in the coming years, and that takes years to replace.
SOMMERSTEIN: Dempsey says change can't come quickly enough. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.
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