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Military Families Have Been Pushed to the Brink by COVID-19

One US Reservist spouse's story speaks to the strain many families feel.

Words: Sarah Streyder
Pictures: Marcelo Silva

“COVID-19 has shown us the best and the worst of the US military structure. Our family has given a lot, and we’re tired. I just want my wife home.”

Those are the words of Alice, the spouse of a US Army Reservist who has been a vocal advocate for the military family community for years. She and her wife are no strangers to the roller coaster that is military life.

But the difficulties of this current moment have created an unprecedented strain on their lives. Just weeks after returning from a grueling deployment in the Middle East, Alice’s spouse was called up and dispatched once again — this time as part of the US national COVID-19 response.

Her orders? Unknown. She’s been in limbo in Texas for seven weeks — hundreds of miles away from home, waiting for our country’s seniormost leadership to decide what the troops will do.

It’s hard for Alice to describe how frustrating this situation is for her and her wife. Reservists are supposed to have mandatory “dwell time” between deployments. This allows service members a mental and physical break from combat, as well as time with their families. In Alice’s case, her wife’s last deployment stretched over 10 months. At one point, her location was targeted by enemy missiles, so she spent hours hunkered in a bunker. Army Regulation 614-30 would normally mandate forty months of dwell time for a reservist after this type of deployment; instead, she got two.

Due to the mental health strain that this situation has put on her and her family, Alice’s wife has applied for medical leave. Although she was approved for early release from active duty (REFRAD) twelve days ago, she still hasn’t been allowed to leave. The fact that such safeguards are being disregarded — without any obvious trade-off — alarms Alice.

My wife and I lived through ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Over her 17 years of service, she’s experienced verbal abuse and extremely challenging deployments. She’s never talked about leaving the military. Until now.

“If the protocols that are in place for the health and safety of our military and families are already out the window, it reinforces that this administration doesn’t really care about the people at the other end of their actions (or lack thereof). Continuing to serve feels too risky and untenable for us. We’re used to making sacrifices for the good of our community, but this isn’t that.”

Her frustrations extend to wasted spending, too. “With all the money the government is spending on my wife’s per diem and lodging costs, I can’t help but wonder how much personal protective equipment the government could invest in instead.”

Alice describes her wife as someone who epitomizes the military ethic. She joined the armed forces after 9/11 because she wanted to have a positive impact on the world. She works hard, keeps her head down, and navigates military bureaucracy with the patience and focus that many of us lack. She fundamentally trusts the system she works in to produce optimal outcomes.

Yet those obvious compatibilities may no longer be enough. “My wife and I lived through ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Over her 17 years of service, she’s experienced verbal abuse and extremely challenging deployments. She’s never talked about leaving the military. Until now.”

The problem, in Alice’s view, comes down to a lack of leadership from the top. Without a cohesive, responsive, federally-guided pandemic strategy, many soldiers feel stranded. Few trust that they’re going to be receiving clear orders from their chain of command. As a result, morale among many reservists and their families is exceptionally low, while apathy and confusion remain high. Now with the news that this administration plans to abruptly end some National Guard deployments to dodge paying retirement and education benefits, I would not be surprised to see a dip in morale there as well.

American military service members and their families are incredibly resilient. As a military spouse myself, I can say with certainty: We’ve had to be! After fighting a war for two decades, we have become woefully accustomed to sustaining an unsustainable operational tempo.

But the botching of this COVID-19 crisis response has driven even our most intrepid to question their future in the armed forces. As Alice put it: “You have to put in a lot of work to make this population not want to serve, and yet we’re getting that sentiment in spades from our forces.”

Military families aren’t the sensitive canaries in the wartime coal mines — if even we are raising our hands and saying “enough,” you know you’ve reached unsustainable levels of mismanagement and personnel shortchanging. This should alarm anyone who cares about a strong national security and our military’s long-term readiness.

This isn’t the first thought piece to talk about a vacuum in federal leadership, nor will it be the last. But as this story highlights, a lack in leadership isn’t just some theoretical concept; it tangibly undermines our national security.

The subject’s name in this article has been changed for privacy reasons.

Sarah Streyder is the Founder of the Secure Families Initiative and a proud Air Force spouse. She is an advocate for principled foreign policy, and passionate about elevating military spouse voices. Sarah has worked in the White House and has a Master’s in Public Policy with an emphasis on international human rights.

Sarah Streyder

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