Four years ago, in the spring of 2009, the Iraq War was at its height. American soldiers and sailors overseas made headlines every day, but military spouses –holding down the home front during an era of deployments that set records for length and frequency — were rarely heard from. But all of that was about to change.
Soon after President Obama was elected for the first time, he issued a proclamation marking the Friday before Mother’s Day “Military Spouse Appreciation Day.” (President Ronald Reagan started the tradition, but it faded into obscurity with following administrations.) Around the same time, there were rumors that the new First Lady would focus her efforts on improving the situation of military families. Few could have predicted then that Mrs. Obama’s devotion to this cause would help transform military spouses’ lives, leading not just to an increased public awareness of these families’ sacrifices, but to much-needed changes in military spouses’ career licensing requirements, school testing standards for service members’ kids, and veterans’ hiring initiatives.
As a Navy wife raising two small children alone while my husband flew jets in the war, I was encouraged, back in 2009, that Americans seemed to be interested in the fate of the families left behind. As a writer, I was intrigued by the possibilities of Mrs. Obama’s advocacy because I had been studying First Lady Martha Washington’s successful efforts to engage the non-military public in the troops’ welfare during the Revolutionary War. In my book, Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War, I included stories of Martha Washington’s actions as a military spouse because before she was the first First Lady, she was equally well known as the General’s wife.
In this role, Martha enjoyed a privileged position, but according to letters and accounts of the period, she never put on airs. She spent her time with the other officers’ wives as they knitted socks, patched garments, sewed shirts for destitute soldiers, provided medical aid, comforted the dying men, and took widows under their wing. Leveraging her high-level contacts in the civilian community, Martha collected cash donated by upper-class women who supported the Revolutionary cause (“the offering of the Ladies”), and used it to purchase linen to make more than two thousand shirts for soldiers. Without knowing that the implications of her actions would resonate for hundreds of years, Martha created the prototype of the military wife. She referred to herself as “steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and cheerful as a cricket.”
My own story couldn’t have been more different. I was a most unlikely military spouse: some of my first memories are of being pushed in my stroller in antiwar rallies throughout Madison, Wisconsin, in 1970, when my parents were students there. Because I had grown up with no first-hand knowledge of the military or anyone in it, I imbibed all of the stereotypes about servicemembers. They were robots who only followed orders; high-school graduates with few opportunities; good ‘ol boys whose daddies and granddaddies set the tradition of service in stone. Their wives were white-gloved ladies who lunched, gossiped, and raised cookie-cutter children.
After I married my husband and lived in a series of military communities, I saw nothing that resembled those crude sketches. The military spouses I came to know and write about in Standing By taught me about courage, motivation, and endurance. They showed me what loyalty and honesty mean, and they demonstrated how friends can become closer than family. So on this Military Spouse Appreciation Day, I remember Martha, and those of us who try, deployment after deployment, to learn from her example – even if we’ll never be steady as a clock, or cheerful as a cricket.