A Military Spouse’s Journey From Annoyance to Advocacy

It is impossible to capture the journey a military spouse takes from confusion to acceptance in one story. This lifestyle requires us to take on many roles, all jammed into one overflowing life. But rather than running from challenges, our collective story is one of tenacity.

My grit stems from my New Jersey upbringing. Whenever someone asks me the dreaded “Where are you from?” question, I take the offensive. “I’m from New Jersey, not New Joisey.” “Yes, Newark Airport smells like a skunk.” “No, I don’t have a spray tan or any tan. I’m Irish, what of it?”

And if someone tells me I can’t do something or that “this is the way it is,” my reflex is similarly salty: “Oh yeah? Watch me make this work.” This quality has both served me well and driven me insane over the course of my nearly 14 years as a military spouse.

When we were first married in 2006, I didn’t realize that my husband, a newly commissioned naval aviator, could not just ask his commanding officer where we would be moving to next. I didn’t understand why life had to be written in pencil and why asking “why” seemed off-limits. It drove my Type A personality mad.

Instead of accepting a full ride to get a Ph.D. in art history, I rejected my inner feminist and followed my husband to Pensacola, Florida, for six months, followed by San Diego for nearly a year, before a three-year stint in Atsugi, Japan. As a working professional I wanted to hate the career interruption, but in reality I couldn’t.

In Japan I fell in love with what military life could be. When my husband deployed on an aircraft carrier, a community of women banded together. Most of us didn’t have traditional jobs, so life was what we made it. The locations we explored, the culture clashes, the wine and Japanese Chu-Hi—we turned separation into an adventure and showed up for each other when needed.

A shore tour in the desert of Nevada followed. Kid one. Pregnancy. Another tour in Japan. Kid two. San Diego again. Kid three. I took jobs along the way, because a career seemed out of reach.

The author and her family said goodbye to their military family in San Diego before relocating to Monterey, CA, in December 2018. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Barnhill

The author and her family in San Diego before relocating to Monterey, CA, in December 2018. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Barnhill

Military life was predictable in its unpredictability. I blogged, worked in project management, cared for my kids, and spent time with other wives, who also resented such military spouse adages like “hurry up and wait” and “embrace the suck.”

Then in October 2017 everything changed. My new friend Esther, one of the members of my military spouse club, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I had barely gotten to know her when she received her diagnosis, but like many new military connections, I liked her at our first meeting. Her two kids were around the same age as mine. This was not supposed to happen to her, or anyone.

Betrayal, Sedatives, and the Long Road Home

At that time our spouse group lacked leadership, and with dwindling participation, there was no official military support organization to fill the gap. The desire to help a friend, a fellow “dependent”—as the military classifies us—and her family, led me to volunteer to be president of our spouse club.

From the beginning of my tenure as president, I realized we were ill-equipped to help my friend as an organization. While there were many military and nonprofit organizations my friend could turn to for big ticket help like financial assistance and counseling, the main resources military families have historically turned to for day-to-day help, for things like meal prep and child care coverage, are spouse clubs. We wanted to help her as individuals, but were so busy with life, kids, work, etc. that our help was probably more of a burden than a relief.

Luckily, Esther had a well-established network of friends and family to help meet many logistical needs, so she could go to appointments and attempt normalcy. But so many military families in similar life-altering situations do not. It broke my heart to think of others with no support in a new duty station, surrounded by strangers with nowhere to turn.

In talking to other military wives across the country, it turned out our group was not the only one struggling to keep the traditional spouse club relevant in a modern age. As military spouses increasingly enter the workforce, the volunteer support structure that once existed is fading away. I realized the military was relying upon this antiquated structure while the needs of many families were not being met.

At this point all areas of my life seemed to collide. Personally, I had experienced true community during my time in Japan and wanted to help correct the problems that threatened that community. Professionally, I was a project manager who brainstormed practical solutions to complex problems on a daily basis. I wanted to complain on social media and move on, but my frustration with military shortcomings would not allow me to just vent and offer a half-assed solution. I knew that I was in a position to do something.

Jennifer Barnhill and her husband. Photo courtesy of Jean Jacobs.

The author with her husband LCDR David Barnhill in Pacific Grove, CA, February 2020. Barnhill says that sometimes military families look like pinups, but there is more to the story. She believes the entire family serves, not just the service member. Photo courtesy of Jean Jacobs.

Over the next year, after my kids went to bed each night, I researched how to start a nonprofit and approached many with ideas on how to offer practical support to military families. I interviewed military and civilian leaders during lunch breaks to find out if anyone else was working on improving spouse club programming. Someone may have been, but I didn’t find them. And then one day on my daily commute-turned-interview routine, one of them bluntly told me, “Starting a nonprofit is exhausting and a lot of hard work. Don’t bother unless you like to be frustrated.”

In an instant I knew this was a challenge I wanted to help solve full time, not in the hidden moments between other obligations.

I used our next permanent change-of-station move in 2018 to reinvent my career trajectory. I began pursuing my master’s in public administration in order to learn how organizations operated. And I started writing again at the request of a fellow military spouse and friend who happened to be an editor of a military-focused publication.

She asked me to put on paper what I had been unofficially researching over the past year: the military’s reliance upon spouse clubs as an unpaid workforce. While the spouses I interviewed were happy to help one another and show community support by joining spouse clubs, the exhaustion involved in this participation seemed universal. For most, juggling family, career, friendships, and military-related volunteering felt expected, however unrealistic.

It was thrilling to see a personal observation and a year’s worth of research turn into a living conversation. But because a central part of my original article was eventually edited out, left on the proverbial cutting room floor, it felt unfinished.

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Through more reporting, I discovered that not only was this outdated model of military spouse groups the norm but that no one in leadership was even looking at it. In interviewing a high-ranking official who managed the Navy’s Family Readiness Group, I was told that the spouse program was not tracked by the Navy at any level.

Looking into a black hole of bureaucracy and asking, “Why does it have to be this way?” was motivating. I asked myself, “If this program exists to support military families, but it isn’t tracked across service branches, does it really matter to the DOD or is it just another box to be checked?”

Spouse groups were not the only seemingly overlooked military family program I encountered in my reporting. Military widows were subject to what was known as the “widow’s tax,” a bureaucratic policy that prevented surviving military families from receiving earned death benefits for nearly 40 years, because it was deemed too costly to correct. I learned that junior enlisted struggled with food insecurity, military children with special needs were being sued by schools when they fought for access to adequate education, military health care prioritized lethality over family care, female veterans experienced homelessness with fewer resources than male veterans, and transition assistance program shortcomings were leading to harrowing veteran experiences. So many “people problems” had problems.

During a trip to Washington D.C. in May 2019, the author met with Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., to discuss military family advocacy. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Barnhill

During a trip to Washington D.C. in May 2019, the author met with Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., to discuss military family advocacy. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Barnhill

As I pursued my career as a reporter it made me want to dig deeper into the why. If military families matter so much to the DOD, why do pivotal roles within military spousal support organizations go unpaid? Why does our job of stay-at-home spouses, secondary breadwinners, and primary parents earn us the title of “dependent” and not “teammate”?

Why does it feel like we, as military spouses, are an afterthought?

The answer seemed pretty straightforward: We are pin-ups. We are welcome-home signs. We are acknowledged with words but are also reduced to two-dimensional roles that do not take our individuality into account. Today military spouses are overeducated, underemployed, and underpaid. We live lives as temporary single parents, juggling work, parenting, marriage, friendships, and the military lifestyle.

And yet, with all that is (un)officially asked of us, we are still labeled “dependents” on military paperwork. We are not dependents. We serve too.

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Unfortunately, in my experience, the military is structured to support a family model that is no longer the national status quo. We work. We are overscheduled and stressed like everybody else. And we additionally provide the family support needed to ensure military readiness and retention. But in order for all of us to succeed and thrive, the way support is structured needs to change.

So instead of worrying about recreating the perfect spouse club, worrying about bylaws and tradition, our busy group focused on friendships. We shared meals. We texted. We showed up for my dear friend Esther however we could. We did what military spouses do; we made it work with what we had and wished we could do more.

I don’t have all the answers. I prefer questions. And (un)fortunately for me, facing an impossible question feels less like a mountain to climb and more like a taunt to answer. Impossible, you say? “Oh yeah? Watch me make this work.”

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Jennifer Barnhill

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com, and she has written for The Independent, Military.com, We Are the Mighty, Military Spouse magazine, Military Families Magazine, and TheMilitaryWallet.com. Jennifer is also a Navy spouse and mother of three.

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