They're There—If You Look

A review of a study—unusual for a RAND analyst (or anyone else, for that matter)—of the often blissless married lives at the very bottom of the Army's chain of command. Accompanied by an interview with the author

A book detailing the travails of Army privates' wives—with an olive-drab cover, no less—might seem dry stuff best suited to Pentagon wonks and feminist academics. But the olive-drab deceives.

Yes, Margaret C. Harrell's Invisible Women confronts an issue crucial to military morale and readiness: the increasing number of married volunteers who today hold junior ranks historically filled by bachelor draftees, people who must struggle with low salaries, life on often-isolated bases, and 24-7 schedules distinctly unsuited to family life. But in the process of addressing this olive-drab dilemma, the author also opens new windows onto a host of other issues—abortion, work, debt, welfare, upward mobility—that resonate far beyond the military world. And this slim paperback illuminates not only policy, but humanity as well.

Drawn from more than a hundred oral-history-style interviews conducted by Harrell, a RAND Corp. analyst and anthropologist, the core chapters give three "invisible women" a chance to be heard in their own words. The most vivid words belong to "Toni" (Harrell has changed her subjects' names). To the extent that people realize that Army privates have wives at all, they stereotypically picture these as young, undereducated, often-pregnant, and none-too-bright, women, the refugees of trailer parks or inner cities. That doesn't describe Toni, who at age 30 gave up a job as a paralegal in New York City to follow her newly enlisted husband to Fort Stewart, Ga. Funny, tough, abrasive, and unmistakably a daughter of Long Island, Toni has all the professional and life experiences that the stereotypical private's wife does not—but she still struggles. The best job she can get in the depressed local economy is washing mud-caked uniforms.

Managers, military and civilian alike, should read Toni's chapter as a case study in how a junior member of a dysfunctional organization can help new leadership turn things around. And whatever your views on abortion—which military health plans, incidentally, rarely cover—you'd best brace yourself when Toni, a Roman Catholic, is told she's pregnant with a brain-damaged child.

Toni is articulate, assertive, atypical of Army privates' wives. The other women in the book shed more light on the classic problems the underclass face: too little education, too many pregnancies, and too much debt. But the successes and failures of the other principles in Harrell's book are determined not so much by such stereotypes as by the support they get, or don't get, from their families and fellow military wives. Indeed, while the author goes lightly on policy recommendations, she argues elsewhere that what these women need is not less Army in their lives, but more: more pay, more housing, and, above all, more support networks for young uprooted families.

For her book, Margaret C. Harrell, an Army brat turned think-tank analyst, drew on interviews she conducted for her doctorate degree in anthropology at the University of Virginia. She spoke with National Journal about the book and her forthcoming article on officers' wives. Highlights of the interview follow:

On responses to her book:

I've been getting two kinds of feedback. One is from the people that have been out there in company command and dealing with these people, and they say: "This is exactly what I've been dealing with, and it's nice to see that you've captured it, and we can hand it around and other people can read it." And from other people, I'm getting, "Oh my goodness, I had no idea that this is what is out there."

On her research:

I interviewed over a hundred spouses—not all of them were women. But their soldier-spouses were from grades E-2 (private) to O-10 (four-star general). That was personally both a really tough time and a really enriching time. My boy was one and a half, and I was away from home for long periods of time doing these interviews. People were always incredibly forthcoming with me, which was very gratifying.... Almost without exception, we had the interviews in their homes; they welcomed me into their lives. A lot of these people I'm still in touch with. One of the couples came to dinner not long ago. I was really struck by the degree to which these people would let me in.

[Interviewing the wives of Army privates] was tough for me, because I grew up an Army officer's kid, and I thought I knew the military. I did not know their lives. Policy makers don't really understand these people because they don't come from this background, socioeconomically. If I was strapped for money when I was 19, it meant no more pizza for the next month. They have a whole different set of experiences.

On junior enlisted wives' isolation:

It's very difficult to reach these wives. They really are isolated. If they're not in on-base housing—and junior enlisted are least likely to get housing—they're out physically separated from the post. And if their spouse takes the vehicle to work, they don't have physical means to get to the post. Soldiers don't convey information to these young wives. You put a note in a kid's backpack, and three weeks later it may still be in his backpack: With some of these young 19-year-old soldiers, you see this same behavior.

But I think, too, that there is a conscious decision to keep their wives and their workplace separate. Commanders say: "No matter what we do, soldiers won't tell the wives that we're having family support group meetings or that there's such a resource available at Army Community Services. Soldiers aren't telling their wives about orientation sessions; they're not bringing them to the predeployment briefings." One reason is that to the extent that a young soldier's wife becomes a factor in the workplace, there's no way she can be anything positive; she can't help him in any way. And if she annoys people or is calling the first sergeant, then that's a negative.

On the women highlighted in the book:

I chose them because of their relationship to the stereotype. The stereotype of junior enlisted spouses is that they're young, they're not terribly smart, they're not well educated, they're irresponsible financially, they're irresponsible procreatively. It is consistent with lower-class stereotypes in sociological literature.

"Dana," in a lot of ways, did meet the stereotype. It wasn't that she was not an intelligent person, but she was young, and [she and her husband] did make some bad mistakes, and, yeah, she did have unplanned pregnancies. Once they had made those mistakes, especially financially, they couldn't dig themselves back out. Yet she's looking for ways to elevate herself. I mean, buying a set of encyclopedias. To me, that's just such a classic sociological class elevation attempt—very misplaced, but nonetheless that's what it was, an attempt at self-improvement.

"Jennifer," in a lot of ways, was the stereotype because she was young, again [had] an unplanned pregnancy, and was far from home, but she was making it work. If it were just the stereotypes that explained those problems, she wouldn't be able to make it work.

"Toni," on the other hand, broke the stereotype in many ways. She was older, she's very capable, she's very self-confident, she's a mover and a shaker, and she has been a professional—but she couldn't make the system work. And that was why I wanted her in there: To show that all their problems aren't their own doing, that the financial problems for her and the medical system problems were a tremendous hurdle that intelligence and capability couldn't push her past.

Were there more Danas I could've talked to? Were there more Jennifers I could've talked to? Yeah. There weren't more Tonis.

On family support in the military:

The family support group is the military unit's system to help families, and it's completely run by volunteers. To a large extent, it falls on the shoulders of the company commander's wife, unless somebody like Toni stands up. [The commanders' wives] receive some training, but they certainly don't receive a master's degree in social work, which is to a large extent what they need. They see young kids like this making mistakes, and they just get burned-out because they can't help, they can't solve everybody's problems.

Company commanders are basically really good guys, but they're trying to do numerous things that don't always go well together. They're trying to train a unit and get it to perform, but, at the same time, they recognize that their soldiers aren't going to perform if they have problems at home. So company commanders and their first sergeants spend a lot of their time dealing with the personal problems of soldiers. Most of [the commanders] are very empathetic and they go out of their way. I had company commanders that were doing things like going to Kroger's with soldiers and working out payment plans when soldiers bounced checks—things that in a civilian workplace would be completely unheard-of. But at the same time, the more time they spend taking care of family problems like that, the less time they have to deal with their strictly military mission.

The officers' spouses have very, very significant roles that they're expected to play that affect their spouses' careers. In the '70s, officers' evaluations could talk about their spouses. You know: "Jim's a great officer, but Susie has kind of a bad attitude, I'm not sure she'll ever really be an appropriate colonel's wife." They used to be able to say that. In the late '80s—and it's astonishing that it took until the late '80s—there was official guidance that military spouses could be free to pursue their own interests. Now what we're seeing is that within the decade since Desert Storm, the expectations for officers' wives have actually increased again, and once again the spouses are back on the evaluation reports. As an anthropologist, I just find that astonishing, that they're moving so far apart from society. It is a response to the fact that the increasing number of junior enlisted families means an increasing number of problems; and the way that the Army is dealing with it is through volunteer uncompensated labor from the officer spouses.

If family support really is necessary—and I fully agree it's necessary—the Army needs to support this, not just by telling officers that they, and therefore their wives, will do it, but by putting some money out there and supporting the system and getting some paid, trained personnel out there to work family support.

And now I can turn and be a pragmatic policy maker and say, but that's a money issue, and where's the money going to come from? And I don't have an easy answer for that. Fort Drum, N.Y., tracked 132,905 volunteer hours between April 1998 and April 1999 and estimated its value at $1.6 million. The labor value at Fort Stewart, Ga., in 1997 was $4.2 million-valued at minimum wage. It gives you a ballpark, and I think it's a pretty impressive ballpark.