Reflections of a 1980s Military Spouse
It is a truth universally acknowledged amongst the milspouse community that this lifestyle can be downright crazy – but is this experience one that has always been true of military families?
Does our modern world – the age of technology, the era of constant communication – assist or exacerbate the nuances of military life? We spoke to Stephanie Bates, a Marine Corps spouse of thirty-three years, to find out!
MS: So – let's talk about you! What does your background look like? Did you have any experience of the military lifestyle before your marriage?
SB: I am 68 years old and I was a military spouse for 33 of those years while John was on active duty. I still feel I am a military spouse – that feeling never goes away, retired or not. It's a very special community and one I have ALWAYS been proud to be part of! I can honestly say, looking back through the years, I would not change ONE thing about our life in the USMC. We have one son who is a LtCol in the Marine Corps and actually stationed here in Hawaii now which has been wonderful. He and his wife will be retiring here in a year and staying put, which of course pleases us immensely!
MS: How did you and your husband meet?
SB: John and I met in college, where he was just returning from the Vietnam war. We were married in 1972, and although I knew he had been in the Marine Corps previously, I also knew he had been medically discharged (3 Purple Hearts later) and just assumed that part of life was over. We dated for a year, got married my senior year of college in Arkansas and started our life together. Never in a million years did I think we would spend the next 33 years, moving 22 times around the world, back in the Marine Corps. I knew John loved his beloved Corps and unbeknownst to me spent the first 3 years of our married life petitioning the USMC to come back in as an officer. He finally wore them down, gave up his disability and took off for OCS. When this news was presented to me I was devastated! Until I met John I had no experience with any connections to the military. I knew my father and uncles all served but that was it..now he's telling me he is taking off for 6 months and re joining the Corps! I was at a complete loss, but I knew this was what he lived for. All I could imagine was he would be sent off to war and killed. Didn't stop to think there was no war going on at the time, but that comes later…
MS: Did you have any preconceptions about what military life would look like before you got married?
SB: I'm not sure what I expected having had no connections with anyone in the military before this, but it exceeded my expectations. Not to say there weren't some "hard" moments. I remember crying when we were trying to save enough money to buy a mattress for our bed and instead the money had to go for uniforms and a sword! They were pretty lean times, but we had made so many new friends all in the same boat with us, that you could never ever have a pity party for yourself! It was a different time then and not a lot of the wives worked outside the home so there was always something going on. I never felt lonely although I missed our friends and family back home.
MS: When your spouse deployed (or went away for training) in the '80s, how did that feel? I ask this in light of our age of instant communication – it's an easy thing to take for granted, after all!
SB: Long distance phone calls were expensive, but that was the only way to keep in touch and that was only when they could get to a phone…No cell phones that's for sure! And certainly not computers so therefore NO emails or social media. 6 month deployments at that time meant a lot of letter writing and to keep track of letters, we would number them so if they arrived out of sequence, which they did a lot!, you could make sense of them. And a lot of times I would get a letter written on whatever scrap of paper he could find. The back of MRE boxes etc…. Toward the end of our career in the Corps I can't believe how much easier military life is with the invention of cell phones and computers. It's the communication that makes all the difference in the world. I have reservations about social media, but that's another subject. Just being able to talk while your spouse is deployed or knowing that you can get in touch with him in an emergency without having to go through the Red Cross or any other red tape is a game changer. It eliminates so much of the worrying…you know what is going on and don't have to speculate and think the worst possible scenario.
MS: Have you found that the sense of community in on-base/spouse/family environments has changed at all over the years? If so, how?
SB: In the 80's there were not a lot of wives who worked outside of the home, so the wives' clubs and social groups and volunteering groups ( Navy, Marine Corps Relief Society, Red Cross, Omsbudsman) were a lot more active. More spouses work now and this has changed things. Towards the end of our career I could sense the change. The wives clubs became smaller and smaller and did less and less. Volunteerism was down a lot also but this is life as we know it now. The world wide web has made it easier for wives to take their job and career with them. I was a teacher and mainly had to rely on working as a substitute teacher at each duty station. Although they would never come out and say it, teaching jobs were hard to come by as they knew if they hired you in a couple of years you would be gone.
MS: The age-old question – does PCS-ing ever become easier?!
SB: PCSing…no it never gets easier, but it can still be a fun adventure…Of course, as every spouse I know, can tell you they have had at least one move where their spouse is not available to be there for pickup or delivery etc etc…but somehow we get through it, our military spouse friends will always step in to help check off the inventory list while you tell the movers where to put what…nothing ever goes as planned, dates change, orders change but that's life! I was never one not to add to our household inventory so we always moved with whatever the max allowance we were given, which I'm sure did not please our packers. We even had one packer walk down our driveway and off the job after doing the walkthrough! I did have friends whose philosophy was we will just wait till were are retired then buy what we want…not me, my life was now not later so our moves were a lot of boxes that's for sure!
MS: What are some ways in which military family culture has changed that you think might be useful for new milspouses to consider? The good, the bad, and the ugly!
SB: The one big difference between life in the Marine Corps today as opposed to the 80's is that the Marine Corps is so much more family "friendly"! And I'm sure that spouses from the much earlier years would think we had it perfect in the 80's. The good news is things keep getting better…I know everyone has heard the old adage, "If the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife they would have issued you one," but that wasn't far from the truth in the olden days….There was no thought given to how to make life better for spouses until one day they realized that a happy wife makes a happy life and a much better Marine. I was in on the ground floor with Sandy Krulak and others when the L.I.N.K.S program started. The goal was to help a new wife adjust to life as a military spouse. It was the thought that marrying into the military was like moving to a different country where you didn't know how to navigate or speak the language. Programs like this have paved the way to helping adjust to military life so much easier.
MS: What would you tell yourself as a young milspouse, with all of the experience that you now have?
SB: There's not too much I would have done differently if I could go back and give my younger self any words of wisdom but I am forever grateful that the wife of one of my husband's first commanders told me at our first duty station, "Stephanie, always bloom where you are planted and make the most of every duty station you are sent to." She was so right, it paid off in so many ways. Wonderful lifetime friends, and memories.
Looking back , all I can say is , that although I went into this with so many trepidations and worries as a young 22 year old, I wouldn't have traded this life for anything else…it's been a wild ride. And I also have the Marine Corps to thank for honoring me with the Dickie Chapel Award in 1999, it meant so much to me and still does to this day.
This article originally appeared on Military Spouse. Follow @MilSpouseMag on Twitter.