Military life takes heavy toll on families

August 24, 2005|By Patty Somlo

THE MOUNTING death toll of service personnel in Iraq has brought the war and its impact on military families home to many Americans. Seeing the suffering of families at funerals for their mostly young husbands and wives, we all grieve.

Yet how many Americans know of the daily sacrifices military men and women make, even when they're not called on to fight a war?

As the daughter of a career Air Force officer who commanded a medical air evacuation squadron in Vietnam, I know the toll military life takes on its families.

Like most other military personnel and their spouses and children, my family moved on the average of once every two years, in some cases every year. As if the moves weren't hard enough, there were times when my father was stationed at a base where we were not allowed to join him for a year or more. At those times, we were suddenly transformed into a single-parent family, a commonplace event for service personnel, especially during a war.

The psychological burdens placed on military families by continually having to pack up and move, saying goodbye to friends and pastors, doctors and neighbors, and then immediately having to start all over in a new place, are huge. Added to the emotional devastation caused by the moves are the absences of the father in the military and the difficult transition when he returns home, expecting to take charge in a family where his wife has been responsible for everything while he was gone.

My parents eventually divorced. As the war in Iraq drags on, more and more military couples may be opting to do the same.

But even for those couples who manage to stay together, the months apart can take a terrible toll. My mother slowly slipped into a deep depression, unable to cope with being left to take care of herself and her children alone.

As if the emotional hardships aren't enough, military families also must make financial and lifestyle sacrifices. Even with recent attempts to construct new units of base housing, many military families still live in substandard apartments in which ceilings and windows leak. Many of them are too small and downright ugly.

As an officer, my father was entitled to better housing than enlisted personnel. Yet the largest and nicest place our five-member family ever lived was a tiny three-bedroom, one-bath duplex. Mostly, we made do in small, gloomy apartments furnished with drab gray and khaki military-issue beds and chairs.

Though military housing is often poor, families prefer to live on base because the cost of housing in surrounding communities is often prohibitive, given the low level of most military salaries. Yet a shortage of base housing exists, causing some families to stretch their meager resources simply to meet the rent.

Military families receive benefits sometimes not available in comparable civilian jobs, such as being able to buy reduced-cost food at the commissary and receiving free health care at the base dispensary. And when military personnel receive plum assignments in places such as Hawaii or Europe, the opportunities of military life can seem to outweigh the costs.

But, especially as our smaller military is being called upon to shoulder more and more of the burdens of war, ways should be found to lessen the great sacrifices that our service personnel and families are being called on to make.

Patty Somlo lives in Portland, Ore., and has just completed a memoir about growing up in a military family.

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