Military Families

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Since World War II, armed forces officials have become ever more aware of the fact and the importance of family life for military personnel. This was due in part to the marriage boom in the larger society that had begun during that war. Officers, who as a group were older than enlisted personnel, were far more likely to be married. In 1953, 81.1 percent of officers were married, as compared to only 33.3 percent of enlisted personnel. By 1960, the percentage of married officers had grown to 84.9 percent, while 47.5 percent of enlisted personnel were married. Although the relative percentage of married personnel (officers and enlisted) dropped during the 1960s, overall the trend has been an increase in the percentage of married enlisted personnel. The rise during the last quarter of the twentieth century was attributed to the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973, and to the increasing age of service members. By 2000, nearly 53 percent of active duty personnel were married. Nearly 6 percent of couples were in "joint-service" marriages, with one active duty employee married to another service member either on active duty or in the reserves. In 2000, more than 600,000 active duty personnel had 1.23 million children.

Military families typically were composed of a male service member, a female civilian spouse, and perhaps one or more children. Sometimes other relatives, such as parents or in-laws, also resided in the household. Into the early twenty-first century, the vast majority of spouses of military personnel were women, although with the growing percentage of women service members (from four percent in 1974 to fifteen percent in 2000), there has been a small increase in the number of male spouses (civilian and military) of female personnel. The imbalance between families with male service members and families with female service members resulted from the attitudes of the larger society, which objected to women in the military, as well as from military policies. Until the 1960s, female service members who married could end their enlistments early. An executive order issued by President Truman in 1951 allowed the armed forces to discharge pregnant women and women with children under the age of eighteen. Although women were allowed to apply for waivers to this policy, the various branches of the military discharged women for pregnancy and motherhood into the 1970s. Women service members also did not receive the same dependency entitlements as men until a 1973 Supreme Court ruling caused the Department of Defense to change this policy.

The superpower status of the United States since World War II has entailed a large strength of active-duty personnel, much larger than before the war. The recruitment, retention, and morale of service personnel, especially career men and women, has been associated with the acceptance of families as a part of military life. To recruit and retain large numbers of high-quality volunteers, military officials had to take their families into consideration.

Military spouses have made significant contributions to the support of personnel and military communities. Since the revolutionary era, the armed forces have relied upon spouses of personnel, especially officers' wives, to provide unpaid and paid labor to aid the military and its families. The expected duties of wives included helping spouses of junior personnel and their families adjust to military communities, participating in social functions and charitable activities, and taking jobs on military bases. High-ranking officials frankly acknowledged that their wives had been crucial to their success, as when U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell D. Taylor stated in 1956 that he would not have attained his current status if it had not been for Mrs. Taylor. "[If] Mrs. Taylor had not taken me in hand years ago," said Taylor in U.S. Lady, "I would still be a second lieutenant."

families abroad

Hundreds of thousands of military families have resided abroad since the end of World War II. Not only were family members expected to comport themselves in a manner that did not hinder military missions overseas, they also were encouraged to actively aid military goals in occupied and host nations. At the end of World War II, the number of families joining personnel stationed abroad grew dramatically. After the war, relatives of service personnel clamored for the return of their loved ones or to be able to join them abroad. Occupation planners arranged to send spouses and children to join service personnel stationed abroad, where feasible. The first occupation families arrived in Japan in June 1946, and in Germany shortly thereafter. Military officials believed families could help curtail several of the problems of maintaining thousands of servicemen in countries far from home, including low morale, drinking, reckless behavior, and fraternizing with local girls and women. Officials also conceived of families as instrumental to occupation goals, especially in demonstrating American good will toward former enemies, and in representing the characteristics Americans associated with their way of life: democracy, freedom, and prosperity. The development of the Cold War during the late 1940s and 1950s resulted in hundreds of thousands of servicemen and servicewomen stationed around the world, and unprecedented numbers of family members living abroad as well. According to the 1950 census, fewer than 108,000 dependents of federal employees (the majority of them relatives of military personnel) resided abroad. In 1960 the number of dependents of service members living overseas peaked at 462,504. This number declined to almost 318,000 by 1970. In 1999, a decade after the end of the Cold War, more than 202,000 members of military families lived in foreign countries.

Despite stereotypes of military families abroad as living in "little Americas," completely isolated from host communities, and although some service members did suffer from culture shock upon relocating to foreign countries, in fact there have been many contacts between American dependents and host citizens. They encountered one another in a variety of venues, including military bases, where many host citizens were employed; schools for dependents; and local communities that family members resided in or visited.

Since 1945, military families have become more heterogeneous, with personnel marrying and having children with citizens of the countries in which Americans were stationed, such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea. These intermarriages sometimes met with hostility in occupied and host nations and in the United States, especially when characterized by miscegenation, as when American men (white as well as nonwhite) married Japanese women, or when African-American men married white German women. Into the 1960s, couples in interracial marriages or with adopted children born in occupied or host nations risked discrimination in states with antimiscegenation laws.

family support

The benefits and services offered by the armed forces to families have included military housing or subsidized off-base housing, medical and dental care, maternity leave, commissary and PX privileges, and travel to new stations in the United States and overseas. In the early twenty-first century, the Department of Defense announced intentions to improve families' access to child care facilities and employment for civilian spouses. Many families appreciated opportunities to travel and live in a variety of locations in the United States and abroad. Despite concerns that children in military families would suffer scholastically from the relocations that are a part of military life, comparisons between students who attended civilian schools and those who attended Department of Defense schools for dependents revealed that pupils who attended the latter fared well on assessment examinations, testing above national averages. Sociological studies have asserted that the experience of living abroad improved children's self-confidence and their acquisition of new languages.

Military life offered challenges to families as well as benefits. In the latter part of the twentieth century, advocates for military families became more vocal in their demands that the military provide services to help families cope with the hardships of military life. Such difficulties included lower earnings for military families, as compared to the civilian sector; long waiting periods for on-base housing and inadequate allowances for civilian housing; the strains caused by the absences of spouses on military missions, and the difficulties of readjustment upon return; and the secrecy surrounding the whereabouts and activities of deployed service members. Many spouses, especially those married to enlisted personnel, complained of feelings of isolation, exacerbated by separation from birth families and frequent relocations. Because homosexuality was considered grounds for discharge, gay and lesbian personnel were forced to hide their same-sex relationships. Some observers contended that domestic violence was more likely to occur in military families than in the civilian population, although it was not clear that this was the case. Although the military has increased its efforts to make services available to assist families, family members and their advocates complained that they continued to receive inadequate attention from military officials, and from the public at large.


Ender, Morten G., ed. Military Brats and other Global Nomads. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Enloe, Cynthia. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women's Lives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Goedde, Petra. GIs and Germans: Culture, Gender, and Foreign Relations, 1945–1949. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Harrell, Margaret C. Invisible Women: Junior Enlisted Army Wives. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2000.

Höhn, Maria. GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, Revised edition. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992.

Taylor, General Maxwell D. "The Army Wife." U.S. Lady 1, no. 8 (1956).

Wertsch, Mary Edwards. Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood inside the Fortress. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

Other Resources

Alvah, Donna. "Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and Cold War Foreign Relations, 1945–1965." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Davis, 2000.

"DoDEA Facts 2002." Department of Defense Education Activity. Updated May 12, 2002. Available from <>.

United States General Accounting Office. Statement of Derek B. Stewart, Director, Defense Capabilities and Management. "Testimony before the Subcommittee on Personnel, Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate. Military Personnel: Active Duty Benefits Reflect Changing Demographics, but Continued Focus Is Needed." GAO-02-557T. April 11, 2002. Available from <>.

Donna Alvah

See also:Gays, Civil Rights for, 1946–Present; Grunts; Latinos in Military, 1946–Present; Military Bases; Race and Military; Volunteer Army and Professionalism; Women Integrated into the Military.