Separate but … well, just separate

For weeks now I’ve been mulling over the issues raised by Ashley Broadway, the lesbian Officer’s wife who was denied membership in the Association of Bragg Officers’ Spouses. I have literally written seven very different versions of this post trying to ferret out my thoughts on the matter. On the one hand, I get why Ashley wants to join the Officers Spouses’ Club, at least I think I do. I suspect she’s trying to knock down some walls, and I support her in that. But, honestly, it’s hard for me to be excited and passionate about anyone being allowed to join a group that won’t let me in — and therein lies the rub.

My husband is Enlisted. I am an Enlisted wife. (And why does that feel like a dirty little secret?) So though I have an ID card (not having one is the reason they gave for excluding Ashley), my ID isn’t good enough to get me into the Association of Bragg Officers’ Spouses — and that stings. No matter what justification they might give for being exclusive, the very name of the organization smacks of snobbery. And, yes, I know there are some Enlisted Spouses Clubs at other posts, but there isn’t one at Bragg. Even if there was, ‘separate but equal’ is not exactly a respected American value.

In researching what to write on this issue, I found a newsletter for the Association of Bragg Officers’ Spouses and it made me cry — actual wet, ugly, tears. There were notices of tennis lessons, craft meetings, play groups and other social activities. The club was bursting with community and support. In other words, the exact things I searched for but had a hard time finding during the almost 10 years I spent at Ft. Bragg; the exact things that might have helped me ward off two bouts of clinical depression. All those years I kept thinking these types of activities would happen through my Family Readiness Group (FRG) — the Army’s-sponsored family support groups — and so, with the tireless efforts of others (many of them Officers’ wives) I volunteered countless hours with my FRG, only to see nearly every effort I poured myself into fizzle out for lack of volunteers. The most likely volunteers, I now realize, had their own club; one I and most of the other wives were not allowed to join.

Some background: The Officer/Enlisted divide was the most shocking thing for me to absorb when I married into the military world. I didn’t grow up in a military family and I was raised to believe that all people were worth the same, a value I hold dearly and deeply and one that has often put me at odds with my military world. My civilian friends are usually shocked to learn about some of the O/E separations and often describe it as a caste system. I don’t disagree with that assessment. Honestly, even 10 years after the initial shock, I still find many of the separations to be ridiculous and offensive. During those years, I helped advise the White House on military family policies; shared the stage with the President and several Cabinet members; gave hundreds of hours to military family causes and had my writings on military family issues published by dozens of national and local news outlets, and yet there’s a large segment of my world that still assumes I have nothing to offer them because of the “E” on my military dependent ID.

Is a deployment really that different for a Captain’s wife than it is for a Sergeant’s wife? Do we not all experience the same loneliness? The same frustrations settling into another new community? The same hardships in attaining our own educational and career goals? The same worries for our children’s adjustments and futures? And if our spouses can manage to accept, respect and work together, why in the world can’t we?

As the years passed, I came to understand that the military has rules — necessary rules — regarding fraternization between Officers and enlisted soldiers. And, actually, I agree with many of those rules. A commander can’t hang out with those he commands. I get that. And the commanded don’t really want to hang out with their commanders after hours. Makes sense to me. I have no problem with the Army maintaining separate Officers’ Clubs and Enlisted Clubs for this reason. Problem is, Ft. Bragg did away with those clubs a few years ago. Now there’s just the All Ranks Club — and everyone is welcomed there. Which makes it all the more puzzling that, though there is no longer a Ft. Bragg Officers’ Club, there is still an Association of Bragg Officers’ Spouses.

There’s a story every military spouse has heard, a cautionary tale. I don’t think anyone knows who actually said it and when but, like any good fable, it is used to remind us to listen to our better angels. It goes like this: A commander entered a meeting of a spouses’ group and told the ladies to seat themselves according to rank. The wives all shuffled around with the highest ranking soldier’s wife taking the first seat and so forth and so on right down to the private’s wife, who took the last seat. The commander then sternly said to the crowd, “Ladies, you have no rank,” and walked out angrily.

But even with this oft-repeated and much-beloved tale, why is it that we — especially after more than a decade of war — excuse and ignore the institutionalized rank-wearing that takes place in social clubs? Why do we even tolerate the existence of clubs whose very names are rank-based, and based on a rank that none of us — only our spouses — actually wear? And why would any forward thinking commander encourage his or her spouse to be involved in one of these organizations, particularly considering that the all-inclusive FRGs exist for exactly the same purpose and could really use more volunteers?

I know that these clubs are largely benevolent organizations and that they truly do some good work. They raise money for charities and much of that money goes to help enlisted families. (Which, while needed and certainly well-intentioned, is a bit patronizing…) But if the women involved actually wanted to help the broader military community — if they actually wanted to help enlisted families — they’d pour their efforts into organizations that include all military families and, in that way, would actually come to know the needs of enlisted families firsthand. Because then they’d know that the biggest need of any military spouse — Officer, Enlisted, gay, straight, young, old, regardless of race, regardless of religion — is friendship. And it’s hard to be friends when they won’t let you in the door.