Response to “An Open Letter to Military Benefits Haters”

One of my fellow milspouse friends posted a link to this article. I encourage you to read it before continuing with my post. 

The tone of the article is quite snarky, but I have heard some quite snarky comments and misunderstood assumptions about the military lifestyle. So I thought I would elaborate, and share a little more about our lives.

In no way do I consider myself an “entitled” spouse, or “wear my husband’s rank”, nor am I a “martyr” for the military. Not at all. However, I do think that the air needs to be cleared, mostly from my own personal experience than anything else.

For those of you who haven’t known Aaron and I since the beginning of “us”, we dated for five years while I went to school and got my BA and Aaron was in a pastor training school. After completing three years in the program, he got on at our church as the children’s pastor for about six months. He was laid off, and he continued on to work at Caterpillar on the assembly line in minor repair. We got married in June 2008 (happy 5th anniversary to us!) and in December of that year, in the midst of my first year of full-time teaching at a local-ish school district, he was laid off. 

So, I say all that to say that I didn’t “marry into” this lifestyle. We both started the military lifestyle from scratch together, obviously mine as a spouse, which I will NOT claim is “the hardest job in the Army”. Give me a freakin’ break.

Here were our options, and in no way an ultimatum.

1) I continue to teach and support our family while Aaron works part-time and goes back to school. The question was how were we going to pay for it? I had $50,000 in school loans already. What would he go back for? How long would it take? How many more thousands would we add on to our debt, since we obviously couldn’t cash flow it?

2) I continue to teach and support our family while Aaron collects unemployment for an undetermined amount of time before finding a job that’s worth giving up unemployment.

3) I continue to teach while Aaron works towards enlisting in the Army. We talked about just the Reserves, but that was still only part-time. We needed steady income to start paying down our mountain of debt, and without adding to it at the same time. So Active Duty Army is what we decided. The Army had the biggest selection of jobs, and it had the job that Aaron was most interested in (computer systems maintainer/integrator), and that would transfer very well into the civilian sector in the future. The Army also had the least strict of weight requirements.

So we chose a mix of 2) and 3). He did collect unemployment for the two months before he signed on the dotted line and the day he shipped out for Basic Training. Since then it has been four years out of a seven-year contract. So if anything, this post will be a reflection for us to describe how we feel about the military and if it’s been worth it or not.

It has.

Now, let me address some statements I have heard either first-hand or second-hand from a close family member. Who it is doesn’t really matter, except to me, and regardless of whether this person actually said these exact words, I know the sentiments are out there in the world. So it pays to address them anyway. 

I am writing this under the guise of educating said family members, because maybe this person was just mistaken and wasn’t informed. All of us judge something we don’t understand every now and again, right? Right, myself included. I take full responsibility for any snarkiness.

1) “The military gets everything handed to them on a silver platter.”

Let me explain a few things. Assuming you read the article mentioned at the top of this post, you already know quite a bit about how benefits work. Let me expand on a few misunderstandings.

First off, I fully accept and make use of the benefits available to me. I love all that the military has to offer families. It’s a huge reason why he joined. Sure, it’s about defending our country and serving its people, but we were thinking way into our future, about what would be best for our family and hypothetical children.

Pay. You do NOT get paid more the more children you have. If that were the case, people in the military would have more children than they already do. You DO get a raise every January 1st and on some anniversaries of being in the military. Deployment pay is tax-free, with many other extras attached. I think it’s a fine reimbursement for being apart for 9+ months.

Education. The Army does not completely pay for me to continue in my studies. I already have a Bachelor’s degree, so my Master’s is mostly out of our own pocket. My assistantship allows me to receive in-state tuition, which I would get anyway with a military waiver. There is a program called MyCAA that pays for some classes within a certificate. (I think they should also allow you to use benefits for teacher certification tests in other states, but that’s another post.) So, since I’m going for a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) cert within my MA, I am getting a few classes paid for. If Aaron were going to be in for 10+ years, then he could transfer benefits of the GI Bill to me (I think….) but why would he? He should be the one to use them first, and then on to our hypothetical future children.

Airfare. We do not get free or even discounted airfare for being military, unless you fly Space Available. Most times when we fly we need to get there and back on certain dates, so we stick to reserving our flights like normal people do.. online. They do have a discount of 5% (either United or American, I don’t remember) but you have to call and book the flight, and then they charge $25, which cancels out any discount. We do get free baggage sometimes, depending on who’s checking you in at the airport. If I fly by myself, I just pay the fee, or I travel with just a carry on.

Housing. Junior enlisted housing at Fort Bliss leaves something to be desired, especially for childless families like ourselves. So we take our housing allowance (tax-free in case you were wondering) and go off-post and rent a house in which we can pay for our rent and all utilities with that one amount. Fortunately, here in El Paso, we get lots of space with what we can afford.

Healthcare. This is a huge reason Aaron chose the Army over other potential jobs or avenues. Through my employer when I was teaching, I would pay $500/month for just the two of us. So, maybe this wasn’t the smartest idea, but he went without health insurance while he was waiting to ship. In the military, I can choose either one of two plans: Prime, which is completely 100% free and allows me to go to post (base) for my medical treatment; or Standard, which allows me to choose my own doctors off post. The latter is what I choose. I still pay copays, but they are a small percentage of the amount that doctors are allowed to charge our insurance. So, overall, since I’m healthy, we pay next to nothing for general healthcare. For dental, we pay a premium every month. Vision is not covered for dependents, so we save and pay out of pocket for that.

Other benefits. I love all the services Fort Bliss has to offer. It has so many new facilities that I regularly take advantage of, such as the commissary (grocery store), which has name brands for cheaper, and better produce in my opinion. That and the PX (Post Exchange, like our mall) are brand new here. I frequently go to the gym(s) on post with a friend and then hit up Starbucks afterward. The pools are great, too. And all of that, besides the commissary of course, are free!

2) “He [my husband] took the easy way out by joining the Army.”

Okay. Joining the military is anything but the easy way out. I mean, think about it. This is when I get to brag on my man, something I don’t do enough. 😉 Aaron worked out 2-3 hours a day while unemployed so that he could meet the weight standards and ship out faster. He scored very very well on his ASVAB (entrance test) so he had the pick of pretty much whatever job was available at the time. It’s not like you can just go to a recruiter (which is a nerve-wracking experience in itself, in my opinion) and say, Hey, I want to leave on this day and have this job and live in this place. They place you in your job, which fortunately for Aaron he got the exact job he wanted. Then we had to wait for the recruiter to drive him to MEPS (Military Entry Processing Station) so that he could go through the whole process of enlisting. Then, when you’re there, you get a date for shipping out. All you know at that point is where you’re going for Basic and Advanced Individual Training. Past that, you have no clue where you will be stationed or how long you will be there, or if you’ll get to your duty station and be deployed right away.

Not only all of that, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a job that requires you to sign a 4+ year contract (his was 7 because his year-long training was not included for whatever reason) and then will come after you and press charges if you decide to quit.

And of course, if you have a spouse or family, you’re bringing them into that uncertainty. When people say that they don’t know where they’re going or for how long, it’s because we really don’t know. I mean, I could say that we’ll be here at Fort Bliss until 2014, just because tours are generally 3 years long, but I’ve heard rumors that they’re extending tours to 4 years. But with the Army (I can’t speak for all branches), you can hear one thing and experience another.

It further complicates the situation if the spouse has a career, like I did (do?). I stayed in Illinois while he was completing training because that’s after the economy took a suicidal nosedive and there was no telling if I’d get a full-time job after moving to Arizona, where his training was. So I stayed put and we worked on paying down enough debt that we could live on one income if needed. I’m so glad we did that; we’re not rolling in money, but I feel financially supported enough to take a pay cut to be a graduate assistant and go back to school for a degree that will hopefully pay itself off exponentially in the future. I’m not just doing this to pass the time because I have “nothing better to do”. 

As far as kids are concerned, we don’t have any, but for those military families that do, I can’t imagine that uprooting your family every few years is the best thing. I also can’t imagine that it’s the worst thing. We both grew up in the same house our whole lives and there is a lot we wish we could have experienced. We talked about this before he joined, and we agreed that we’re the type of people who are cut out for this lifestyle, and if we have kids while he’s still in the Army, I know that they will be supported enough at home academically and emotionally to hopefully make transitions smoothly. We also get plugged into a church right away to keep accountable and start forming relationships outside of the military. This is where the majority of my support system is when he’s gone.

3) And my personal favorite, “She [meaning me] chose to move away [from family].”

This one I take way more personally than any others… except maybe 2). Seriously? Seriously. People move away all the time. Of course I’d choose to move away! Aaron and I don’t make decisions based on fear, whether that’s fear of the unknown or fear of what people would think. Ain’t nobody got time for that. We make decisions based on biblical principles and what we feel is best for us. If people want to be supportive and come visit every now and then, then that’s great! If they want to be jerks with this attitude and use it as an excuse for not visiting or just having a rotten point of view, then whatever. I mean, my husband and millions of other people are defending Americans’ freedom to be jerks, so whatever. 😉 Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. 

All in all, we see the military as an incredible opportunity for Aaron to get hands-on job experience while getting paid (um, duh! that’s great!) and also to travel and see new places. I also would not have had the opportunity to pursue the career I really want (teaching ESL/teaching at the college level). Separations are not easy. Out of ten years we’ve spent more than half of that apart. In the end, our marriage is strong enough for it because we work our asses off for it. Like I said before, we’re pretty well cut out for it if this is what he decides to do for 20 years.

The Lord allows us to go through all sorts of things, even things we choose, to refine us and make us more like Him; we’re just on the accelerated track. Aaron loves his job and actually gets to do it on a daily basis. He will come away from the military (maybe ;)) with his top secret clearance, 6+ years of job experience working in different countries, and multiple certifications. My husband being fulfilled in his job makes me a happy wife. I’ve become more patient, better at communicating my thoughts and feelings, more content spending time by myself and enjoying it, better at interpersonal relationships…. those benefits are what I really take away from this lifestyle.

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