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.

16 thoughts on “Separate but … well, just separate

  1. Hear, hear!

    Great post, Rebekah, and I was surprised to learn the E Club and NCO Club were gone — who gave a rat’s furry anything about the O Club? 😉 — and all folded into an All Ranks Club.

    Back in the day a 2LT and 1LT would still listen to the advise of a Sgt., a Capt. still listened to the sage advise of his E-7s and up, and Top ran the show but allowed the Old Man to take the credit.

    That said, great ost, right up to:
    But if the women involved ….

    What about spouses who re not female?

  2. Really fantastic post. Makes me very glad that the spouse’s organization here in Michigan is 100% all-inclusive. When I need someone to talk with, I sure as heck don’t care whether that person’s spouse is an officer or enlisted. Or gay.

  3. Dear Rebekah,
    You are so right. My husband was an officer, and neither of us agreed with the “rule” about officer’s vs. enlisted spouses. It was ridiculous. That was one reason we always lived off base. My husband was a doctor which was a little different, but he used to get so mad when officer’s wives would come in to be seen and act like they were better than others and should be treated differently because of who their husband was. THEY were NOT officers, they just married someone who was. You sound like a thoughtful and caring person, so do what I did and focus on other good people and your family, and show them what class is!
    Good luck and God bless

  4. Being the child of a military family, I can remember what it was like for my mother when my dad went away.
    Dad retired as a Captain but started out enlisted. He worked his way up the ranks.
    The higher up’s wives tended to be the snobbish types, who excluded everyone else from their circle.

    ‘Who is that? Oh that’s the Captain’s wife, don’t bother with her.’

    We’re all on the same damn side here.

  5. So frustrating! Fraternization regs have NOTHING TO DO WITH SPOUSES! It’s just an excuse for someone to feel superior for a job they don’t even do. Stand on your own two feet, I say!

  6. Officer’s wife here and I have to say, life is lonely enough at some of these posts to deny yourself friendship with someone because of your SPOUSE’s rank. I’d be royally screwed- absolutely and utterly lonely- without the enlisted wives and civilians that I have met at some of these godawful posts we have been placed at. Let the actual soldier/airman/seaman/marine handle the fraternization in whichever way their leaders deem appropriate and for the wives/spouses- be glad there are other folks married to any rank at your disposal to go through what 99% of this country’s citizens will never understand in terms of sacrifice.

  7. I have so many things I want to say. I don’t know where to start. MANY places now have “Community” clubs for spouses that are inclusive – Enlisted, Officer and even Government Civilian employees’ spouses are welcome to join. The Command Team courses I’ve attended at FT Leavenworth and at NDU taught me that “We are in the yolk together” when it comes to including Enlisted spouses in the Command Team. So when my husband was a Battalion Commander at FT Stewart I invited the First Sergeants’ and Command Sergeant Majors’ spouses to join in Battalion events called “coffees” that were traditionally only for Officers’ spouses. Including the 1SG and CSM’s spouses was hugely beneficial all members. Whatever events I had personally at my 1200 sq foot house (like Hail and Farewells or outdoor movie night) were for E6 and above (at the unit there were no exclusions – my house was limited in space). I cannot tell you how many Enlisted spouses said that was the first time they had ever been invited into an officer’s house. The FRG leaders had lunch at my house monthly – and they were spouses married to all ranks E-4 to CPT. Really? What a loss to not have them a part of the team. In Brigade Command in Germany, it was the Government Civilian employees that ran the FRG. I’ve learned not to be choosy when it comes to volunteers. I don’t understand what is going on at FT Bragg, but I do remember the resistance to dropping “Wives” from the group name some 15 years ago when we were stationed there. Progress takes time. It is a private group and so long as they abide by FT Bragg policies, they will be able to be discriminating in picking their membership. If you don’t like it work proactively to get the FT Bragg publications changed so no discrimination is allowed. Another option is to write your own by-laws and start another group that has the membership you seek. Seriously. Don’t be a victim – fight for what you know to be right. Be an agent of change! Please email if you want to share any more on this. I hadn’t even thought of the organizations I’m involved with in the DC area in light of their exclusive nature. Some are and some aren’t. I’m going to ask some questions before joining next year. You have raised my awareness and for that I am grateful.

  8. Rebekah –

    Thank you so much for this post. You are 100% correct. Maybe it is because I married my husband when we were both in our 30’s and I had my own life or maybe it’s just that I was not raised to ever feel I am better than someone else. Either way, the behavior of his fellow officers’ spouses was shocking to me to say the least. It started when I was just “the girlfriend” and continued on to his duty assignment after we were married. I encountered poor treatment from spouses because my husband’s rank was not as high as theirs. I finally decided that I would actually have to care about what these people thought for it to bother me and made a decision to only surround myself with the type of people who would like and care about me for who I am as a person. That’s why I have a hard time wrapping my mind around why Ashley Broadway would even waste her time trying to associate with folks who apparently have lost their moral compass. It’s her decision, but this spouse group at Bragg is not the company I would want to keep.

  9. Forgot to applaud you on that well written, thoughtful and thought provoking piece. I am happy that you have had an audience at the White House and on Capital Hill. Are you a member of the National Military Family Association? NOBODY is excluded there – not Veterans, or Reservists, families of the fallen or retired, the National Guard or the NOAA. If you are a family member of anyone who is or has worked for one of our uniformed services, you are included. Heck, anyone who wants to support military families are invited to join. The NMFA would be glad to have you as a member and grateful for your service should you chose to volunteer. At any rate, their website and e-mailings are free.

  10. I will say that pioneering for change is hard – and sometimes stressful. I was met with resistance when I was inclusive. I had advice from the previous Bn Cdr’s wife why I should not be inclusive and her reasons were compelling. I had one (only one – the other’s were so supportive of me) 1SG’s wife try to rake me over the coals – who did I think I was? So high and mighty to speak on behalf of her. How dare I. Since when did I think I knew anything about Enlisted spouses. Well… I think I did since I just had lunch with them in my living room and my husband would take a bullet for any one of their spouses. I saved every vile word she ever wrote to me – not sure why. Maybe as proof of how very hard change can be? She didn’t hurt my feelings. I wondered how many others felt the same way just weren’t empowered to speak like she was. After that I have never said I was speaking on anyone’s behalf, because, really, there might be people who don’t want me to speak for them. As angry and ugly as she was in her words, she helped me to see things differently. Her husband and mine are facebook friends. She attended something she was invited to in Germany (several years later when her hubby was a CSM) and spread her angry words to the people who invited her and I’ll never forget when the 4 star General’s wife asked her with dignity and respect why, if she felt so negatively about military family member programs did she bother to attend? It was an excellent exchange.

  11. These are such wonderful comments — thank you all for so thoughtfully considering this issue. I do want to address the idea of spouses of enlisted service members starting their own organizations.

    While it’s certainly possible, there are some problems with that: 1) Legitimacy. To have a legitimate, respected group that other spouses will want to join/feel safe joining, you need command support. To have command support, you have to go to the commanders and explain why a new group is necessary – which means telling them that you want to get away from their wives. Believe me, this is a road many wives of enlisted have considered and quickly discarded because the thought of even ever-so-nicely telling your husband’s boss that you think is wife is a b*&ch is a non-starter.

    2) Time. Enlisted soldiers earn less than officers (an E9 with 20 years of service earns about the same as an O3 with 8 years of service; an E5 with 5 years of service brings home about $2600 a month), that means less household income, which often means that spouses have to work just to make ends meet, and the military lifestyle means these spouses are often underemployed and working hard at low paying jobs. Many enlisted families qualify for WIC, in fact. You can’t start an organization when you’re working full time and raising kids, sometimes during a deployment.

    3) Lack of know-how. I don’t mean to imply ignorance in general, rather just ignorance of the system. An officer’s wife is privy to a road map that an enlisted soldier’s wife is not privy to. Even after 10 years in this life, even after 10 years of committed volunteering and national recognition, I don’t have the first clue who to go to form an organization that would be allowed access to say, an FRG roster, so that I could invite other wives – where the commander’s wife can just ask her husband.

    For myself, I gave up on joining official groups and, honestly, I gave up on the FRG. I was blessed to have been at the same post for 10 years and was eventually able to create a circle of friends from all walks of life — some married to soldiers in my husband’s unit (officers and enlisted) and others I just came to know because of kids, hobbies and work. This, however, is not an easy option for spouses who move every 3 years, who do not work outside the home and/or are homebound with little children. That’s why military-affiliated support networks are so vital — that’s also why I became heavily involved with Blue Star Families. It, and organizations like it (NMFA, for example) are wonderful resources and their very existence prove that the current system has failed families miserably.

    One more thought: Most spouses (officer or enlisted) are terrified of doing something that will damage the active duty spouse’s career. We ALL live in the fishbowl. Quite honestly, that’s why I wrote 7 versions of this post before posting it. I’m still holding my breath to see what the blowback will be on my husband because I’ve been so outspoken. Real or imagined, there is this threat that hangs over all of us that if we speak out of turn, our actions could cause irreparable harm to our spouse and could threaten the income we rely upon. So, I don’t think it’s very realistic to expect an enlisted soldier’s wife to ‘be the change’, so to speak. She’s just not likely to have the confidence to do that (even if she has the time and institutional know how) — honestly, I’m a huge loudmouth with a lot of important friends, and even I don’t have that kind of confidence.

    • I appreciate your insight on all of this. The dialogue is so important. Why don’t people talk about things? Well, we are – so that question is mute. I asked the FT Belvoir Officers’ Spouses Club (BOSC) president about the membership rules and she said gay/lesbian partners are welcome and she is in favor of all ranks as well. When membership rules change (like when they changed wives to spouses), the membership suffered a hit – as those not agreeing with the change took a hike. Well, this is one LARGE club, so it can survive some people departing to get their needs met somewhere else. I will ask them to consider changing the membership to be all inclusive. Hardly anyone in the club even lives on FT Belvoir. Hardly anyone will even meet others who may work for their spouse – where the old fraternization issues may exist. This is solely about like minded people, mostly women who gather together for social needs, networking, information, volunteerism and fundraising in support of military families. I cannot see a reason to exclude enlisted spouses from this camaraderie. After reading comments on articles about the situation at FT Bragg, though, I’m guessing many may not feel like I do. Like you, I worry that I will bring trouble for my husband, as I am outspoken about certain things and seriously am tired of some of the BS we (all of our military family members) have to deal with. Fortunately I am in a position to have people listen to me (fair or not, it is true)and if I see it is time to make a change, I am not afraid to say it.

  12. Bravo to you, T. Bird! That is so encouraging! At risk of being overly dramatic, this E/O divide & gay rights issues remind of the civil rights arguments. (I did a senior thesis on the Freedom Riders) There were certainly some difficult years early into integration, but no would argue now (at least not openly) that integration was not the right thing to do. And those that would still favor racial segregation know that they would be largely shunned if they said so. I think that’s the ultimate solution: Widespread rejection of bias. I call this the “MADD solution”. Years ago people used to joke about covering one eye with their hand and leaning out the window so that they could drive home drunk. No one would joke about drunk driving now — that’s because MADD and other groups made it unpopular and unacceptable. Change takes a long time, but talking about it is definitely the first step. And having brave people like you stick their own necks out is absolutely essential.

  13. I’m Air Force active duty enlisted, and just rolled over 20 years in November. In my experiences, I’ve witnessed the spouses self-dividing by rank. This is not institutional due to fraternization rules; it is self-inflicted/imposed by the spouses themselves. Maybe it is different in other services, but I sort of doubt it. I remember watching an uniformed E7 correct Major’s wife, who was attempting to cut line in the commissary “because she was higher ranking”. I’m sure some will disagree, but it’s really up to the spouses to fix this, not the one’s wearing the uniform. All we can do is provide support to our spouses and knowledge about the actual military. Fixing the spousal “ranking” issue is an education piece that only wiser spouses can provide.

    ps- wiser also does not mean spouses who have been married to military longer, there are plenty of spouses out there who know next to nothing about the military after many years

  14. I totally agree, Jason. As spouses, we are continually reminded that none of us wears rank, and yet… In my opinion the troops themselves are guilty of perpetuating this only in that they often look the other way. (Good for that E7!) I have never heard anyone active duty, E or O, tell any spouse to kowtow to another, or to assume a higher position, because of her husband’s rank. I have also noticed that the worst offenders tend to be the mid-career officers’ wives, not the wives of the most senior officers. I suppose it’s that queen bee/wannabee theory in action — those on the periphery themselves are the cruelest; while those whose positions are most secure can confidently be kind. (paraphrasing).

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