Bases, Military: Life on

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Bases, Military: Life on. At 0600 hours (6:00 A.M.) on most U.S. military bases around the world, people are stirred from sleep by the muffled, deep‐throated boom of a cannon and a rousing wake‐up Reveille. Although some residents have been on duty during the night, the majority are now beginning their day. Junior enlisted personnel and their noncommissioned officers soon head for some form of physical exercise, to be followed by showers, breakfast, and a day filled with varied training experiences.

Enter that base through one of its several, often guarded, gates and you enter a world very different from civilian life and community. Certainly, it has changed over the years, but it still represents one of the earliest and most comprehensive examples of planned communities in the United States. Just as in Reston, Virginia, or Columbia, Maryland, on a military base you can work, play, shop, give birth, and bank in the place where you live. But there are many significant differences. The military base is, in a sense, a “company town” where the employer is at once landlord, sheriff, fire department, and grocer.

The residents, clustered by rank (and indirectly by income), are all part of an institution whose mission, as statutorily defined, is to maintain the common defense and, if necessary, to wage war successfully. All of the operations and activities of the base are intended to support that mission and to increase the service members' identification with, and loyalty to, the units that comprise it. A wide and responsive array of family support services—including medical care, reasonable housing, highly competitive grocery stores (commissaries), clubs, and recreational activities—is designed to meet the needs of family members and to assure the soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman that their spouses and children will be looked after if they have to deploy to some trouble spot in the world.

If you live on a base for even a few short weeks, you will notice that you and your neighbors in general differ in some surprising ways from civilian counterparts outside the gates. You are younger (98% under forty years of age), healthier, and better educated (99.7% have at least a high school degree and approximately 70% some college education), and you are in a relatively stable marriage (over 62% are married; 78% for the first time, 15% for the second time, 3% three or more times). Furthermore, you can expect that the incidence rates of local crime will be less and that you can still count on your neighbor to get involved should your home or family be threatened by an intruder.

If you happen to be a member of a minority racial or ethnic group on that military installation, you are not alone. Although the majority are white (69.5%), black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Island members of the armed forces are often disproportionately represented compared to their numbers in the civilian population (black members comprise 27% of the army population). The racial and ethnic demographics of the military reflect the attraction it has for citizens seeking equal opportunity to advance. Although much remains to be done for race relations, life within the military neighborhood or barracks is characterized by a respect based upon performance, and by the fact that the military has had years of experience at the leading edge of integration in the United States.

Women comprise only 20 percent of the active duty force, yet their numbers, seniority, and the variety of roles they may play in the force structure have increased dramatically over the past decade. Today, women are excluded only from the most direct combat‐related roles, and even there, the decision is often justified on strength considerations rather than gender or social/sexual stereotypes.

At the workplace itself, there are also a number of differences. On duty clothing considerations are circumscribed; there are prescribed uniforms for the work to be done. Once at work, an eight‐hour day is the norm, but personnel will be expected to remain on the job, with no overtime pay, for as long as it takes to complete the task assigned. A military career is still considered by many to be a vocation (versus an occupation); it calls upon its members willingly to do the extraordinary in the service of their country. In return, the tangible and intangible rewards are many, including regular recognition ceremonies and a sense of ritual; an opportunity to advance based upon performance; a family‐oriented social and health care safety net; and retirement after twenty (or fewer) years of service.

At the end of the duty day, around 1700 hours (5:00 P.M.), all of the civilian workforce, and perhaps 50 percent of the uniformed personnel, head to their off‐base homes; the remainder walk or ride to their quarters somewhere on the installation. Everyone, however, will stop when the cannon again roars and a bugle is heard sounding the first notes of Retreat. If you are in a car, you dismount and face the flag. If you are in uniform, you stand at attention and salute. The world comes to a stop for a few moments as the flag is lowered, folded, and put away for another day, as it has always been in the military.

In the evening, if time permits, you and your family might enjoy an on‐base Little League game, a bowling tournament, a shopping expedition, or even a movie at the base theater. At the theater, you will not be surprised when the strains of the national anthem are heard prior to the performance and everyone rises respectfully.

Although certainly reflecting the civilian society that surrounds it, life on a military base has a character and pulse of its own … and Reveille is just a few hours away.
[See also African Americans in the Military; Careers in the Military; Class and the Military; Families, Military; Housing, Military; Women in the Military.]


Ward S. Just , Military Men, 1970.
Charles C. Moskos and Frank R. Wood, eds., The Military: More Than Just a Job?, 1988.
Mary Edwards Wertsch , Military Brats, 1991.
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense , Family Status and Initial Term of Service (December 1993).
1992 Department of Defense Surveys of Officers and Enlisted Personnel and their Spouses, 1994.
Navy Personnel Research and Development Center , Quality of Life in the Navy, Findings from 1990 to 1992: The Navy‐wide Personnel Survey (October 1994).
Peter Grier , The Quality of Military Life, Air Force (December 1995), pp. 30–35.

Peter J. McNelis