Wednesday, October 19, 2011
On Military ID Cards and Feminist Angst
When people with no prior experiences with the armed forces marry the military, they find themselves, quite unexpectedly and disconcertingly, in a painting by Dada. They are taken from all that is familiar and comfortable—family, friends, home—and are dropped into a landscape littered with an odd mishmash of patriotic symbolism; cold, cruel bureaucracy; instant, deep friendships; relentlessly stupid red tape; a profound sense of serving a great country with a great purpose; and loneliness.
Finding a way to relate to this bizarre landscape without losing one’s identity, one’s sense of self, is challenging. As far as the military was concerned, I was an appendage of my husband because he was the one who signed his life away to the government, not I. I was just along for the ride with no direct commitment to the military myself; my commitment was to George.
My identification card, for example, contained George’s social security number and rank, two bits of information that had absolutely nothing to do with me yet would define how the bureaucracy treated me at the base hospital, base housing, the base exchange, and the base gas station for the next twenty years and beyond. To this day, on those rare occasions when I am asked for my social security number, I have to think hard to remember it, though I can rattle off George’s without any effort at all.
My first Officers Club card named me Mrs. George Raihala. I didn’t care what Emily Post had to say on the subject: my name was not Mrs. George. My 21-year-old feminist self railed against this vestige of old-fashioned military tradition. I was certainly proud to take my husband’s last name when we married, but having myself labeled a “dependent spouse” and Mrs. George simply boggled my mind. How could our nation be so institutionally sexist?
Well, in the years since then, things have changed because “dependent spouse” now applies to husbands much more often than it did then. As more and more women wear the uniform, more and more men find themselves in the club which used to be called the Officers Wives Club (OWC) but is now known by the more politically correct name Officers Spouses Club (OSC).
Rather clunky, don’t you think? I have no idea how many husbands actually participate in the formal OSC because I quit long before the club went officially co-ed. Back in 1989, the first year I joined, it was all women, all the time.
I can’t imagine a husband who would have wanted to play with us girls anyway.
The OWC (because everything related to the military needs an acronym) proved to be the oddest group I ever joined. Think, for a moment, about the randomness of military wives. A bunch of men decide to commit themselves to their country, giving them all a common purpose and course of action. Their community is strong and tight, united by the common goal of service to country: fly, fight, and win. They come from all walks of life, all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and they are exploited by the military machine to work together, 24/7.
The military owns these people and can move them any place, any time, at a moment’s notice.
Where in the world does this leave their spouses? Well, it leaves them alone. Rarely are people stationed near family, and their active-duty spouses work long hours and frequently travel, especially if they are pilots or navigators. George and I spent only three of our first ten wedding anniversaries in the Air Force together; for the rest, he was away on temporary duty.
Needless to say, when a bunch of women are yanked from home, plopped into a strange place, and left alone for long hours, they need a support system, friends, a routine, and a job. When we arrived at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan for George’s first operational assignment, I immediately went looking for a job and found one at the base credit union. Most of the other employees were married to enlisted guys, so they couldn’t understand why an officer’s wife was bothering to work.
As I couldn’t understand why any woman, regardless of marital status, wouldn’t want to work, we clearly were coming at this whole job thing from wildly different points of view.
Generally speaking, my coworkers treated me with cautious respect, like I might tell my husband if they were mean to me, and he might pull rank to get their husbands in trouble. They never let me forget the difference in our husbands’ ranks. Few of them lowered their guard enough to become actual friends.
With the women at work keeping me at a distance, I needed to put my energy into making friends elsewhere. After my positive experience in college, meeting lots of people and making a diverse and interesting group of friends, it felt incurably weird to meet new women on the base and find myself repeatedly asked two specific questions. It was, in fact, rather like being given a double-elimination quiz at sorority rush for OWC (or, as I like to call it, Oscar Whiskey Charley). The two questions, in order, were
1) “What squadron is your husband in?”
2) “How many children do you have?”
More often than not, if a woman’s husband was in, say, the tanker squadron, she would immediately dismiss me as a potential friend because my husband was in the bomb squadron. Of course, we couldn’t possibly have anything in common if our husbands reported to different commanders, now, could we?
If a woman’s husband was in the same squadron as my husband, I passed the first test, but then she would ask me question number 2. Since we didn’t have children until we’d been married 13 years, I flunked this question every single blessed time.
How sad is it that people wouldn’t be my friend because of my insistence on using birth control?
At a luncheon for the OWC magazine team, the hostess politely tried to include everyone in the conversation. I was rather quiet, so she asked me, “How many children do you have, Susan?”
I replied, with a little smile, “None. We have a dog.”
She paused, clearly searching for words, and finally said, “That’s nice. Sharon, when is your baby due?”
It took every single ounce of decorum in my body not to burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Interestingly, the Sharon who was pregnant at the magazine luncheon was my one friend who violated all these unwritten rules. Her husband was a major in the intelligence squadron. My husband was a lieutenant in the bomber squadron. By the rules, we should not have been friends because her husband worked in a different squadron and he also outranked George by a good bit.
I rather relished our friendship, not only because she was a really neat person and we had a lot in common (she’s a writer, too), but because we both felt like edgy rebels taking a stand against the oppressive old-school military-wife mentality.
In fact, Sharon and I may have been the thin edge of a wedge of social change for military wives, but I wouldn't know. That magazine luncheon signaled the beginning of the end of my time in the OWC. At subsequent bases, while I felt no hostility toward the OWC, I also felt no need to participate. Some groups are just not a good fit, and it’s important to recognize this before you commit to them for any sizable chunk of your life. I quit going, and no one seemed to mind.
This past Monday, I had to renew my military identification card. My feminist outrage twenty-three years ago at being labeled dependent spouse and Mrs. George Raihala by our United States Air Force has been replaced by a new outrage that has nothing to do with my name, George’s rank, or the fact they asked for my weight.
No, I was completely taken aback by the appallingly poor quality of my photo. On my new ID card, I look old, frumpy, and annoyed. I do not look like me at all. In fact, I look like the stereotype of a middle-aged, bitter, angry feminist.
The clerk who took the photo was a woman…a woman who should have let me see the photo before printing the card, a woman who should have given me a second chance to set the photo straight, a woman who clearly needed new glasses.
Feminist outrage has given way to feminine outrage.
I just can’t decide if this is progress or not.