- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2001

The phrase "women in the military" conjures images of women in uniform driving trucks and flying planes. Those women, of course, are all volunteers. As Margaret Harrell shows, another class of women in the military, the wives of junior enlisted men, made no such deliberate choice. Instead, they are conscripts by marriage.
A cultural anthropologist by training and now a social scientist at the defense think tank RAND, Mrs. Harrell interviewed over 100 junior enlisted spouses, primarily at Ft. Stewart, Ga. and Ft. Drum, N.Y. This book focuses on three womens stories, which, although typical in many ways, both confirm and confound our stereotypes about the food-stamp military. The narrative approach is new for RAND but effectively illustrates the complex problems facing policy-makers under pressure to make the military more family-friendly.
When Dana met Ted, he had already enlisted in the Army. She put her college plans on hold and moved across the country to be with him as soon as he finished basic training. Dana unintentionally got pregnant on their honeymoon. Although the family qualifies for WIC (the Agriculture Departments nutrition and education program for pregnant women, infants and young children), they do not qualify for food stamps; their $400 per month allowance for off-base married housing counts as income, which puts them above the cutoff for food stamp benefits.
During the course of her interviews with Mrs. Harrell, Dana became pregnant again. Dana is anxiously awaiting Teds promotion to E-4 rank (corporal), which will allow them to live in on-base military housing and probably qualify for food stamps. After deducting various "allotments" payments made directly to lenders for car loans and the like Dana, Ted and their son live on a net salary of about $900 a month.
Mrs. Harrell selected her three interview subjects because they do indeed match some of the stereotypes of junior enlisted families: lacking education and discipline, struggling with debt. Many young, working-class families deal with the same problems. The difference for junior enlisted wives is that they are married to the military. Sometimes that works to their advantage (e.g. medical care is free), but often not.
To be with their husbands, these young wives moved far from family and friends, losing both emotional and material support. Until their husbands achieve E-4 rank, they cannot expect to live on post and receive family-friendly benefits such as good, cheap day care and food stamps (because the value of on-base housing does not count as income).
Unlike other young wives, these women cant easily contribute to the family income. Most Army bases are in rural, economically depressed areas, where it is hard to find any job, much less one that pays well. Frequent transfers and unexpected deployments make it hard to pursue a career. The military pay system is erratic, and the paternalistic "allotment" system lets young soldiers incur debt for expensive impulse purchases (which sellers gladly finance because the Army deducts payments directly from soldiers pay).
Similarly the military offers cash housing allowances, which seldom cover actual rents, to married soldiers of any rank, a sore temptation to single privates tired of barracks life and mess-hall chow. As the author notes, fixing the housing problem by offering on-base family housing to junior enlisted personnel "would have obvious negative ramifications for the rest of the military community for which there would be less housing."
Indeed, consternation already exists because, with bonuses, some junior enlisted are paid about as much as experienced, valuable senior enlisted personnel. As most supervisors and chaplains will attest, the military expends enormous time and effort dealing with the problems of young military families. This includes single-parent families, because divorce often results when civilian spouses reject the stresses of military life.
Almost 16 percent of Army recruits show up married, and more tie the knot soon after. The all-volunteer force is desperate for volunteers. But is it in the best interests of either the force or these fragile young families to turn the nations defense into a uniformed welfare program? "An Army of One" may be a brilliant slogan, after all, if interpreted to mean, "Stay single, soldier, until you can support a family."
"Invisible Women" is an objective, balanced and thoughtful book portraying the real lives of young enlisted families. People who arent familiar with the military and those who think they are should read it and learn.

Anita K. Blair is executive vice president and general counsel of the Independent Womens Forum in Arlington, Va. She was chairman of the 1998-1999 Congressional Commission on Military Training and Gender-Related Issues.


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