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.

Color me Overly Sensitive…

A few weeks ago a friend posted a funny picture on Facebook that she’d ripped from a page called “Overly Sensitive Military Wives.” Intrigued, I checked out the page and found that a bunch of my friends had “liked” it. So I liked it, too. Every few days I’d drop by to see what was posted on the prolific page — there’s an update nearly every hour, and a lot of the stuff is pretty funny. Then I started reading the comments — and I started getting depressed.

My reaction was similar to the reaction my husband has when we encounter someone particularly loud-mouthed and ignorant. “I can’t believe I volunteered to fight and possibly die for that,” he says, and we shake our heads sadly, roll our eyes and chuckle. I usually counter with, “Yep, their vote counts just as much as ours do.” Many times this is followed by a conversation about all that is wrong with America and how we ought to just defect and start our own country somewhere else. Preferably somewhere warm.

Trolling through the posts and comments on that Facebook page made me feel like all the — seriously — thousands of hours I’ve given to work on military issues have been in vain. “I’ve been busting my ass for these people?” I thought, and got a little sick to my stomach. Family support, children’s resources, childcare initiatives, spouse education and hiring benefits, suicide prevention, you name it and I’ve helped with a fundraiser or an awareness campaign. The women who post comments on the site are mostly military wives from what I can tell, and they seem to draw great pleasure from ridiculing “dependapotamuses” (which, I admit, is a rather clever term), whom they define as being fat military wives. Stereotypes abound and there’s not a shred of kindness or understanding anywhere.

In fact, my husband Facebook stalked me (I gave him permission) and saw that I’d commented on one of the updates. He clicked through, read the comments, and called me to say, “If this is the Army now, I want out. These people suck. Are there really people who think like that?”

The temptation to join in is obvious. It’s human nature. Practically every tween and teen movie includes a plot line about the nice girl (and it’s always a girl) who gets invited to sit at the popular table in the cafeteria and then becomes a bitch who makes fun of her old friends. Those plot lines are there because even children can recognize that it’s wrong to sell out your own people — and we want our kids to absorb that lesson. Some of us just don’t seem to apply it to ourselves.

Children aren’t spared in the comments, either, by the way. They’re always described as shitty brats, and not “brats” in the military sense of the word. There’s no credit given for the fact that those ill-behaved kids are coping with a freakin’ decade of war the best they know how. And, having lived in a military community for nearly a decade, I can say confidently that it’s not like the majority of military wives are size 2 beauty queens. I highly suspect that the harshest commenters would probably be described by others as a “dependapotamus” themselves as they chased their misbehaving kids through the PX. I’m honestly not sure how those bitches managed to climb up on horses high enough to allow them to look down so easily on the rest of us.

The entire point of the OSMW page is to be mean to military wives. That’s it. There is no other reason for it’s existence. Worse, from what I can determine, it was started by an unmarried female service member. Obviously not one with a demanding MOS though, (I hope) or she wouldn’t have time for all those updates.  Now, I get why she and other female service members might derive some joy at poking fun of military wives — there is a long-standing rivalry there — but why in the world would a military wife join in? That’d be like a black person joining the KKK “you know, ’cause sometimes racist jokes are funny.”

It’s mostly cheap humor, not wit. Simply slapping an e-card and a fake quote graphic on a mean statement doesn’t equal comedy. These Rosies aren’t riveting, in any sense of the word.

Ugh. I feel like I need a shower, and maybe a colonic and a juice fast. Or a lobotomy. Something that will clean me inside and out to take the stank of that page away.