How Men Can Help Women Succeed in the Military

Everyone knows about army wives—now we need a new generation of army husbands.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP Images

The Pentagon's decision to open up combat roles to women was such great news in a number of ways. There's the basic justice of allowing women to get credit for something they are already doing. Lifting the combat ban also means that women now can serve in positions that are generally essential for promotion to the top of the military (who wants a general or admiral who hasn't actually served in combat?). And we got treated to a spate of articles and interviews featuring amazing women soldiers, sailors, and pilots.

The only thing we didn't hear about, or at least I didn't, was the need for army husbands. (I'm not leaving out the other services, but "army wives" is the term often used to describe military wives generally.) Army wives have their own TV show and reality TV show, their own lore, books, and blogs; even their own radio network—all of which are filled with pictures of groups of women. As a society, we understand that our military men could not do what they do without their wives, who must handle the stresses of long deployments, single parenthood, changing plans and locations at the drop of a hat, and the omnipresent fear that their husbands will never come home. Holly Petraeus, daughter of a four-star general and wife of another, moved 23 times over 30 years.

How are women going to be able to make it to the top of the military without an entire new generation of army husbands? Obviously men married to military women are not new, but they are in the decided minority. Consider the following plaintive post from an army husband writing in to a portion of an army website titled "Experiences of Army Wives":

I am not an Army wife.

The heading of this section, "Experiences of Army Wives" is why I'm writing.

I am an army husband.

Consider the stresses of the Army wife, loneliness, sense of abandonment, and jealousy of their husbands' freedom in their huge Army family. Add the worry and the doubts about how important you really are to the person who leaves so often.

Then add the simple facts that at least 99% of supports that are out there are supports for women. Your wife trains with body armor and 50 cal machine guns and you're at home making sure the kids have food, clean clothes and get an education. I'm more "liberated" than most, but after a while it makes you start questioning your manhood. You joke to others about wearing an apron but you can't avoid the embarrassment. Who can you call for support? An Army wife? No—not a good idea for so many reasons. Even if you do find another male in the same situation men find it real hard to talk about feelings.

Army wives feel more and more distressed as deployment time approaches. This is totally understandable, but it also happens to men. But the people around him are less accepting if he, a man, shows how he's feeling or, God forbid, looks for support. Of course this is stereotyping but you can never completely be free of it, if not you then in others.

If there's a point to this it is: Be aware of the Army husband and that he's suffering too. Do what you can reasonably do to lend support if you're so inclined. And maybe think of Army spouses as humans experiencing much of what you do, regardless of gender.

The TV series Army Wives features one army husband and four wives. It has apparently generated a spin-off this season that will be entitled Army Husbands. The issues this series should grapple with are complex and controversial. As the post above suggests, the elephant in the room is how we define manhood. Are we willing to see a man who is at home with his children, full-time or part-time, while his wife is off on the front-lines as a gunner or a pilot, as fully a man? We had better be able to answer that question yes, or we are not going to see genuine female equality in the military or anywhere else.

This is uncharted territory. As the mother of two sons, I often think about our mantra over the past three decades of telling girls and women that they can do anything a man can do and still do all the things that women have traditionally done. It sounds a little different to tell boys and men that they can do anything a woman can do and still do the things men have traditionally done. Why? We all know the answer; male is the norm to which we aspire; it is women who must become equal to men, not men equal to women, in so many parts of our society.

But that has to change. Do the math. Women cannot occupy 50 percent (or even close) of the positions men have traditionally occupied in finance, business, politics, or the military unless the men who are currently in those positions have other alternatives. And men won't take those other alternatives unless they feel accepted, welcomed, and valued—not as women-surrogates, but as men.

A final thought. The military just might point the way here. After all, it is the military, with its creed of "leave no soldier behind" and the focus on building bands of brothers who fight for each other, who offer a vision of a man devoted to those he loves: caring, nursing, comforting, even weeping. Think of all those war movies As long as that caring takes place in a jungle or a desert or a valley between forbidding peaks, with bullets flying, it is the essence of masculinity. Why should it be any different on a base? True courage is found in unexpected places.