Male Military Spouses: Increasingly Common Yet Still Invisible
"It's a He!" Military Spouse magazine declared on its May cover, when it named Jeremy Hilton (pictured above) its "Military Spouse of the Year" -- the first man to ever win the distinction. And while husbands may not come to mind when you're flipping through the pink-tinged pages of Military Spouse, or browsing the Army Wife Network, there are droves of them out there.
Department of Defense numbers show women as making up 14.5 percent of the active duty military in 2011 -- up from 1.4 percent in 1970. That data showed 46 percent of those 207,000 women as married, and 48 percent of their partners as also being active duty members of the military. That translates to roughly 51,000 civilian spouses of the active duty female force, and rising.
Most of the issues facing military spouses are the same no matter their chromosomes: extended periods of separation; raising children alone for long stretches; pursuing their own career when they're up and moving every few years; not knowing where their partner is, or what they're doing, or if they're in danger.
But the vast majority of organizations, committees and resources catering to military spouses have a specifically female audience in mind. Military spouse blog SpouseBuzz.com recently ran the story "What NOT to Wear to a Military Homecoming," and their advice to avoid stilettos, visible thongs, butt-skimming dresses, prom dresses or wedding dresses was likely little help to Hilton.
"There are a bajillion programs out there for your typical female spouse," Hilton told AOL Jobs. "There's almost nothing -- very, very little -- for male military spouses."
Many male military spouses feel alienated from the female dominated spouses' clubs (sometimes just wives' clubs), and struggle to find a community that knows what they're going through. There's also the gender reversal to adjust to, and while the idea of the stay-at-home father is becoming more accepted, it's all the harder when that man's wife has such a traditionally masculine job.
Wayne Perry, who's been a military spouse for 27 months, and has cared for their rambunctious toddler while his wife was gone for 19 of them, says that he feels uncomfortable calling up the female spouses on base and asking them over for private playdates. "You can't really call up a soldier either," he says, "and ask if they want to play blocks with you."
Finding Support As The Supporter
Sending a partner off to war and staying home with the kids is always hard. But doing so as a man can complicate it more. "It can be emasculating to know that his wife is a warrior, and he's a poopy-wiper," says Perry. "You stay home all day, and you're wiping butts and noses, and going out on playdates, and braiding hair, and your wife is out there blowing things up and shooting big ol' guns."
It's unclear exactly why, but the divorce rate among female military personnel is more than twice as high as for their male counterparts, and higher than that of female civilians -- even though for men the divorce rate is lower in the military than outside it.
Chris Pape has been with his wife ever since she just graduated her college ROTC program in 2000, and never felt the need to reach out to other military spouses. "I'm such a fiercely independent person. My wife did her thing, I did my thing. I didn't really embrace the military as a lifestyle."
But then they had to move last year from Arkansas to South Carolina, and Pape, who shut down his video production business after the last move from Colorado, wasn't able to find a job. He wanted support and community, but couldn't find anything out there for someone like him.
He picked up a military base guide for spouses, and "it's all pink -- the font, it's pink and white -- and the whole marketing campaign was a woman mopping the floor and holding a baby, saying, 'You can do it too,' " he says. "And it's like, 'OK, I'm not going to use that resource.' "
No Tea At The Commander's House
So Pape decided to start his own. He poured his life savings into making a website, primarily a collection of videos of male military spouses talking about their experiences and giving advice. MachoSpouse.com launched in February.
"What I'm hoping to do, and what I hope it accomplishes, is a conduit for men to come together and realize that they're not alone," he says. Pape's been traveling around the country interviewing other men, and says "they're just happy to know I exist." He gets thank-you emails from other men in his position, telling him that they stayed up to 3 a.m. watching the videos on his site.
"The male military spouse, we are kind of a new group," Pape says. "But we're growing."
Perry is also trying to help male military spouses know of each other's existence, but doesn't think creating a website is the way to do it. "Guys aren't going to read how-to books. Guys aren't going to watch how-to videos," he says. "We don't read directions."
He thought male spouses might benefit from simply getting together sometimes and doing manly things. So he co-founded MANning the Homefront, which over the last year has organized meals and activities, like baseball games, paintball and dirt-track auto racing, for the male spouses at Fort Riley, Kansas. In early August he launched the idea at seven other locations.
Hilton attended one of the MANning the Homefront get-togethers. "We all just went to the pub. It was just me and two other guys -- but that's how things get started in this world," he says. "We're trying to get needs that we can't by having tea at the commander's house. We're not into that. A lot of the women aren't into that."
With the help of the military support nonprofit, Not Alone, Perry is now helping to organize the first all-male spouse retreat for early next year.
Making A Mission Out Of Spousehood
While many men benefit from being more connected to the military spouse community, Hilton believes that the community also benefits from the men.
Hilton was in the U.S. Navy for eight years, before his daughter was born with brain damage. Because his deployments were more frequent and longer than his wife's, they decided that he would give up his military career and care for their child full-time.
But Hilton is mission-oriented, and soon noticed a lot of holes in the way the military handles its members' special-needs children. Thanks to knowledge that he gained from his own military experience, he managed to push through a lot of changes in a few short years, including a reform of the Air Force Exceptional Family Member Program and the creation of a new Military Exceptional Family Member Panel. Now he's advocating for the Caring for Military Kids with Autism Act, and in June testified before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel.
"My background is in nuclear engineering, kind of a nerdy background, very by-the-book.... So I got in the weeds there and was able to solve a problem that no one else had," he says. "It's taken both sets of us, male and female. It's important to have diversity of thought."
And sometimes the issues facing female and male military spouses are different. In response to SpouseBuzz's post on what not to wear to a military homecoming, Perry wrote his own version: "What Should a MANspouse Wear for Military Homecoming?"
His list of "no's" includes wife-beaters, 1980s basketball shorts, anything that makes reference to the military branch the you may have served in -- if it's different from your wife's -- and muscle tees.
"Even if you are ripped and look like a PT stud, you will still look like a wimp when in a room full of dudes in combat fatigues," he writes. "Heck, your wife in her uniform will look tougher than you."
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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