Despite her years of experience and education, the writer discovered the hard way how elusive work is for an Army spouse.
When I married my husband nine years ago, I had to resign from my counseling position. After steadily advancing in a career in college education, relocation was necessary, but I did so thinking I’d be able to find a job on or at least near post. I had over ten years of experience working with students. We lived at the United States Military Academy at West Point, in New York, and the main campus was within walking distance. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t find a position in education while living there.
So I widened my search to occupations off post, outside my field, and with lower pay—but I still couldn’t find anything. But now, after having children and relocating, I was competing with graduate students looking for their first jobs, people reentering the workplace with advanced degrees, and formerly active military personnel. There simply aren’t enough employment positions for all of us. I never considered any of that. I was devastated. I was used to being treated with respect—I’d been seen as an inspiration by my former students.
But in the military there’s something called “spousal preference,” which is a notation on your application that your significant other is active duty. However, you can only use this preference once per duty station. Without the preference, my application would not meet the qualifications needed to secure an interview. The civilian pay office advised me to use it wisely. They also told me, “In this current system you will never beat out a vet.”
About eight months into my job search, I was referred to a full-time two-month temporary position similar to my counseling job. I applied, interviewed, and was offered to start immediately. When the position opened to the public I was encouraged to apply and did so using my spousal preference with the full support and encouragement of the department I worked for. But a veteran with a higher preference was offered the job. Within months he transferred to another department, and eventually the job series was redesigned to be occupied by a soldier.
I am married to the Army, so I am expected to mind the front lines by making sacrifices and serving my household so my partner can do the same for his country. It never occurred to me that I would not have similar employment opportunities as I did back home because of the vows I took. I thought moving around the country would be exciting.
Military spouses are often seen as undesirable employees because our addresses change so frequently. However our partner’s pledge to defend against foreign and domestic enemies should have nothing to do with our right to earn a living wage. We have to be loyal to the military and its demands, and that means we must leave our jobs when our significant other’s orders dictate a move. If I tell future employers that I’m an Army wife, I may not get the position I apply for. If I don’t disclose my status, I risk looking unreliable and unprofessional due to the gaps in time on my résumé.
In a talk about military spouses and their high rate of unemployment, First Lady Michelle Obama told NPR.org, “There are many different ways that a military person’s career can be translated, and a lot of times, the civilian private sector doesn’t know how to make that connection.” But one thing that has yet to be discussed is how some military installation spouses compete against veterans for jobs. In the current system, if both partners need to work, the civilian spouse is always at a significant disadvantage.
In May 2015, the First Lady spoke at the White House about the success of the Joining Forces Initiative, a project that launched in 2011 that works side by side with the public and private sectors to make sure that service members, veterans, and their families have the tools they need to succeed throughout their careers. Twelve states have already signed on and found their own solutions to some problems military spouses often find within professions that require licensing (like counseling) during multiple moves necessary when one is married to a soldier. They’ve developed their own certification guidelines for equivalency standards and military spouse license portability. Yet my credentials in school counseling still requires recertification in the state it was granted in.
This is not to say that many military companions can’t work successfully. They just tend to work out of their field of expertise. According to the Clinton Global Initiative 2010 there are approximately 710,000 active-duty spouses—93 percent of them are women. However, in most cases the pay isn’t enough to live on. In my first year of unemployment, we had another child unexpectedly, after we were told I could no longer conceive, and our debt increased by $14,000. The self-sufficient, confident person my husband married wasn’t used to having to ask for money to shop, so I turned to credit cards. I used a small amount of money from an internet business I started to send money to my older sons from a previous marriage, believing that I’d be able to bail us out of debt with a new job at our next duty station. I thought the days of being passed over for employment were behind me. But when I couldn’t find work, I amassed even more debt, and I lost faith in the system.
The Department of Defense supported a program Military Spouses Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA) to aid mates in obtaining what the department called a “portable career.” Unfortunately my funding was cut just months after I started taking classes—I was no longer eligible, due to my husband’s rank. But I was determined to finish. I accepted a position folding souvenir T-shirts and ringing up tourists for $9 an hour, less than what my teenage son made working at the commissary. But I needed the money to pay for full-time daycare. I didn’t have time to haggle for a higher salary or to look for another position off post. At first, I was so happy to have a job I didn’t pay attention to anything else. Soon after I couldn’t shake that feeling of being demoralized when my son asked, “Why are you working for no money, mom?” There was no answer to give. I’d stressed education to all of my children, the importance of work and knowing your worth. After a year, I still hadn’t landed a full-time permanent position, so I went back to school for a second advanced degree.
My husband’s rank also determined our government housing. Once he was promoted, our address didn’t change, but our rent increased. I needed to work, but employment off post would be challenging with an infant and a toddler. Most military posts are located in remote areas. When my husband and I started dating, he was stationed in the middle of the Mojave Dessert. Every entrance to our home on post is staffed with armed guards. Harsh winters at the Academy make it difficult to work off post, and the competition to get Government Specialist positions on post is intense.
I support our veterans. I am proud to live somewhere that takes care of men and women who sacrificed everything so that we, as everyday Americans, don’t have to go without the basic tenets of freedom. However my husband and I could both be unemployed one day if the rules don’t change. Each time I go looking for work. I’m up against another veteran and considered unworthy, even though I’ve served our country too. We all know that freedom isn’t free. I’m an independent, educated woman, and a mother of four. I have to be able to support my household should anything happen to my partner. But that’s not the only reason I need to work: I started working at 13, legally, with a permit for 19 hours per week as a hostess before I was promoted to waitress. I’ve always held a job even while I received welfare except during pregnancies. The thing is: I actually like to work. I love the feeling of independence, and I take pride in the fact that I’m good at what I do.
Having entered into the job market so young, I learned to be responsible, self-reliant and resilient at an age when most kids are usually not employed. Work was a confidence builder, and remained a consistent exercise in independence and personal development that I didn’t get anywhere else. Without it, I felt less than especially after putting in almost 23 years of service in combined fields. I didn’t give up my right to work in the discipline that I love because I became a military spouse. And I shouldn’t have to, either.
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