Families, Military

views updated

Families, Military. “If the Army had wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one!” This often quoted dictum reflects a historical truth: until recently, military families have been excluded from military attention and policy, not just in the army, but in other services as well. Nonetheless, there have been American military families as long as there has been an American military establishment, and the numbers are growing. In the mid‐1990s, more than 2 million military personnel (more than 60%) were married, and military families represented at least 3 percent of all U.S. households.

Military families are influenced by a unique set of circumstances. The organization that employs the breadwinner sees itself as a familylike structure, and insists that its mission must come first. Militant values such as violence and hierarchy shape the context within which family members must function, and at times the battlefield encourages stronger bonding between warriors than between family members. In addition, the military family is socially defined by the status of the soldier, and its personal life is constricted by definite rules. The military member faces more danger and a greater likelihood of death than in most other professions, and the family must either recognize or deny this reality. Whichever response it chooses has its effect. Frequent moves disrupt family life, often involve separation, and sometimes require adjustment to foreign cultures. Working hours are unpredictable.

On the other hand, there is job security, coupled with the promise of early retirement for career personnel. Although pay levels are not competitive with civilian rates, income is reliable and in recent years fringe benefits have partially balanced this disparity. A military career often provides the family with a sense of order, social solidarity, and community, as well as an unambiguous social identity based on clearcut ideals and expectations. These long‐standing characteristics have varied in wartime and as the larger civilian society became more industrial, powerful, and international.

Although evidence is scant, sources claim that as many as 20,000 women were “camp followers” during the Revolutionary War. Most were the wives, many accompanied by their children, of the soldiers who fought the war; often they had nowhere else to go. These women nursed the sick and wounded, sewed and laundered uniforms, cooked for the troops, and struggled to follow the armies when time came to move on. Although these families were usually tolerated out of fear that the husbands would desert otherwise, only the laundresses received any official notice or recompense.

As the new nation grew, the small military's task changed to guarding ever‐shifting borders, taming the West, and protecting against European incursion. Military families (both officer and enlisted) traveled with the armies, although in peacetime fewer officers were tolerant of soldiers' families, and often required permission for marriages and certification for families to accompany troop movements. In the years between 1783 and 1848, pay was low and promotion slow. Few soldiers could afford families. For those who wanted their families with them (or who had no other alternative), shelter and rations were scarce. Indian attacks, traveling mishaps, and disease, as well as death in childbirth, killed off women and children indiscriminately.

Between moves, families settled into whatever housing was possible. At some of the eastern posts, casemate housing in coastal defense forts was particularly crowded, and meals had to be taken elsewhere. Still, these brick and stone lodgings seemed luxurious compared to the sod and mud shelters in the West. Sometimes families (especially enlisted) slept in the open, in tents with the soldiers, or in caves. Laundresses, still the only women given official status, were provided with rough cabins when available. If an officer of higher rank wished, he and his family could “rank out” another family, taking over their housing if it looked more comfortable. This tradition continued at least until World War II.

Military family life was not entirely without its pleasures, particularly for officers' families. As more women followed their husbands west, the antebellum frontier posts reflected their influence. By the 1830s and 1840s, officer housing at larger posts was more spacious and weather‐proofed. Flowers and vegetables appeared in gardens. Social life included dinner parties, balls, amateur theatrics, and occasional church services. For children, simple grammar schools were established, often with teachers “drafted” from the enlisted ranks. Wherever wives settled and children played, efforts to transport “civilization” from the East were not far behind.

Military family life in wartime was a different story, as the Civil War years attest. With every war, the number of families expanded as military ranks swelled. Though many wives (both Northern and Southern) remained at home, others chose to accompany their husbands everywhere possible, or, more frequently, when they camped nearby. Sometimes wives of enlisted men had nowhere else to go. Officers' wives usually had more options, and, like Libby Custer, visited their husbands out of devotion and a desire for adventure. Wherever wives gathered, a social hierarchy based on the husband's rank soon emerged. Except for brief visits, children were left with relatives for safety from disease and wandering bullets, and thus the war precluded much normal military family life. As usual, rank had its privilege, and many senior officers enjoyed extended visits from their entire families.

After the war, resources declined and the minimal support for families available in the antebellum period decreased. Enlisted men still could not afford families. Although a minority of all military families, many more officers' wives and children went west with their husbands and fathers. Little was provided for family maintenance: minimal travel allowances, inadequate or no housing (with a few exceptions at the larger posts), scant and unhealthy food shipments, poor or nonexistent schools, and only occasional medical care by ill‐trained camp doctors often unused to dealing with the health problems of women and children.

Those families without outside resources to make up for such inadequacies were at a great disadvantage, although even the poorest officer families often had the luxury of servants—either enlisted “strikers” or the wives of enlisted men. When they could afford it, officers often chose to send their older children back east (sometimes accompanied by their wives) to be educated. Younger children were often tutored in rudimentary skills by their parents or others on the post.

Yet in their frequent moves from one outpost to another, these families established a sense of community and shared experience that would be a part of professional military life until the enormous expansion of the mid‐twentieth century. Most came to know each other and many were related. Their separation from civilian life, heightened by hardship and slow advancement, drew them closer. As in the antebellum period, wives worked hard to make the quarters comfortable, and to influence their environment in whatever ways were possible. Often they viewed their surroundings and “adversaries” differently from their husbands—appreciating the still untouched beauty of the plains and mountains, and empathizing with the Indians.

With the Spanish‐American War, military families found themselves facing the new challenges of empire. By 1900, wives clamored to accompany their husbands abroad, especially to the Philippines, which until the 1980s provided one of the major overseas posting for the American military and its families. Predictably, enlisted men seldom could afford to bring their wives and children with them. Once in the archipelago, however, some soldiers married Filipina women, the first of a long line of “war brides” who, along with the families of the African American “Buffalo” Soldiers after the Civil War, would contribute to the growing heterogeneity of U.S. military families in the twentieth century. Officers, on the other hand, were sometimes allowed to bring their wives and children from the States, at their own expense. Once in the Philippines, these families struggled to find their own housing and food, fight against different diseases such as malaria and dysentery, and learn enough about the new culture to survive within it. As the American presence in the islands expanded over the next forty years, base housing became available, and military families often chose to stay within the confines of the post and try to replicate the lives they had left behind.

Between 1900 and 1941, whether their soldiers were stationed in the United States or overseas, military dependents increasingly chose to live nearby, except in wartime. Washington still provided only the barest support: travel pay and rental allowances for officers with families, nothing for enlisted men except that granted at the mercy of individual commanders. Nonetheless, on an unofficial level, the “Old Army” continued to offer a sense of identity, order, and community derived from shared experience, common acquaintance, and a feeling of “otherness” from the civilian world.

The World War I era produced little change in military family life, and none in military policy toward families. Twenty years later, however, because of the enormous manpower needs of World War II, many more men with families joined the military. In 1942, the Dependents Allowance Act was passed by Congress—a concrete acknowledgment by the government that military families were a military responsibility. Each wife and child received an established monthly payment; and this allowance, coupled with allotments set aside by the soldiers and augmented by the government, provided some regular support to all military families.

Other conditions improved as well. Although never adequate enough to keep up with the ever‐growing numbers of families, large new military bases made provision for better healthcare, shopping, schools, and housing. Since wartime contingencies forced frequent moves within the United States, and families could not accompany soldiers to most foreign postings, many families chose to stay “at home” for the duration. Others followed their soldiers whenever possible.

At war's end, the new U.S. position in the world and the advanced technology that supported it required more career military personnel with more education, who therefore were usually older. The number of military families grew exponentially. The Pentagon gradually began to develop a more coherent military family policy. Pay rates improved and pensions encouraged long‐term careers. More on‐base housing was built, and in 1956 Congress passed the Dependents Medical Care Act, which provided full health benefits to families.

Since the end of World War II, life for military families in all of the services has changed. Those who accompany their spouses now are in the majority, and with the advent of the All‐Volunteer Force in the 1970s, keeping them reasonably content has increasingly been recognized as necessary to maintain satisfactory force size and efficiency.

Changes in gender attitudes throughout the society have brought changing conditions for the military. By the end of the 1950s, the traditional wife who stayed home and solved many of the special problems of the military family could no longer be counted on; instead, she often had a career of her own. Indeed, as more and more women joined the military, the spouse might be the husband. Sometimes families were “dual‐service” couples. By the late 1970s, as the courts forced the services, one by one, to allow female soldiers to become mothers without discharge, such couples might be raising children. When divorce rates soared in the whole society, more single‐parent families occurred in the military. To respond to these issues, the Department of Defense generated new studies and policies, and appointed a deputy assistant secretary for personnel and family matters. Additionally, the National Military Family Association now exists, independent of the government, to highlight and respond to questions especially relevant to the military family.

A fundamental problem remains that in order to survive the stress of its special circumstances, the emotional openness that often strengthens families in other settings is sometimes suppressed in the military family. This has led to higher‐than‐average rates of alcoholism and other forms of dysfunction. Even in stable military families, frequent separations cause shifts in dynamics that require careful negotiation. As the U.S. armed forces move into the twenty‐first century, these family dilemmas will have to be addressed.
[See also Bases, Military: Life on; Gender and War; Gender: Female Identity and the Military; Housing, Military; Rights in the Military, Citizens’; Women in the Military.]


Nancy Shea, rev. and Anna Perle Smith , The Army Wife, 1966.
Patricia Y. Stallard , Glittering Misery, 1978.
Florence W. Kaslow and Richard I. Ridenour, eds., The Military Family, 1984.
Edward M. Coffman , The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784–1898, 1986.
Gary L. Bowen and Dennis K. Orthner, eds., The Organization Family: Work and Family Linkages in the U.S. Military, 1989.
Betty Sowers Alt and and Bonnie Domrose Stone , Campfollowing: A History of the Military Wife, 1991.
Mary Edwards Wertsch , Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, 1991.

Carol Morris Petillo