“When you get to a new base, at least in the Navy, you’re thrown to the wolves with little to no support.”
- Maggie, Navy spouse
Support. A word that is thrown around at both the DOD and installation levels as a means of trying to relate to the struggles that are faced by military families across the globe. But what exactly does the word “support” entail at these levels? And how does that understanding differ from military members, to spouses and families?
Speak with any military spouse, and they will most likely tell you that they have experienced difficulty integrating into a new installation at one point or another due to a lack of personal support. As mentioned above, military spouses are “thrown to the wolves” from the moment we set foot on a new installation. We are expected to handle everything from PCS checklists, getting kids registered in school, double-checking that all accounts are closed and affairs handled from the last duty station, and being available for all things move-in related, nevermind if we have a full-time job. When we ask for support, we are given the number to a point of contact (key spouse, ombudsman, FRG leader, etc.), invited to a general “new spouse” social function that occurs either during our move-in or months down the line, and we have a plethora of general “resources” thrown at us to seek further support. We are expected to seek out support on our own when we are up to our heads in getting our families settled, with barely enough time for a hot shower and a decent meal.
Meanwhile, military members are generally given personalized support right from the get-go, without having to ask. They are given a sponsor who shares their job to show them around the installation and get them familiar with their unit and the local area. The sponsor introduces the military member to their unit, which integrates them into their work and social system. This provides the support they need to be able to do their job and have people to rely on when they need it. The member is rapidly integrated into the installation from the day they set foot on the ground.
The DOD offers countless resources to spouses; however, the disconnect between personalized and generalized support seems to be occurring at the installation level. What does this mean? Installations are not very involved with providing spouses with the kind of support that they do with military members themselves. So, the question that remains is, what can be done to fix this?
The solutions can be found by modernizing how installations approach the issue of military family support to meet spouses where they are. Here are a few ways installations can achieve this:
- Implement a “spouse sponsor” system
Like the military member, spouses should be connected with a sponsor to help them acclimate to the local area, and integrate socially into their next installation. As one spouse says, “[There is] a complete and total lack of a sponsor system for spouses. Yes, there are branch-wide and national associations that facilitate this sort of thing, but there’s nothing at the installation-level that pairs incoming spouses with resident spouses who share the same interests or life stage.” These sponsors can be within the member’s unit, or be someone who volunteers with the FRG, spouses’ group, etc. In addition to social integration, this sponsor can help the spouse get set up with resources, such as PCS child care and employment help, to facilitate a smoother transition and alleviate stress.
- Schedule more events after working hours
A lot of installation and unit activities, as well as FRG and spouses’ group social activities occur during working hours, which can be more than just an inconvenience for military spouses; it’s downright isolating. One spouse recalls her own difficulties at her previous installation: “Those of us with our own careers, it’s near impossible to attend “family events” on base because most of the time, they’re held during a weekday during the day. (Which I literally said to a commander [at our last installation] and I was basically ignored). I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my career just to be present and part of the military family events, but often that’s how people make friends or meet people.” Installations can mitigate isolating working spouses by facilitating more weekend and after-hours events to include spouses who otherwise cannot make it due to work obligations.
- Invite spouses to quarterly “All Calls” with Command Teams
Many units will host family picnics, barbecues, and other events for families as a means of being more social and giving the family an opportunity to meet other people. However, while this idea is great in theory, it still keeps spouses on the “outside” of the goings-on in the unit. The command team can help spouses feel more connected by hosting an “all-call” like event that allows spouses within the unit to connect with each other on a different front, as well as connect with and ask questions of the command team to promote transparency and communication between families and units.
In short, installations, particularly the unit the member belongs to, need to be more involved in the integration process. There’s a saying that is becoming more popular of late — if you take care of your members, you take care of the mission. Taking care of the member includes the member’s family, and making them feel supported is a surefire way to bring success to the mission.
Blue Star Families is working to include welcome 365 days of the year.
Learn more about our campaign for welcome at https://welcomeweek.bluestarfam.org/.