By Hollie Badrock
As a nation, we often reflect on the service and dedication of those in armed forces; yet, on such occasions, we tend to overlook the sacrifices that have been made by military spouses in supporting and enabling their partner to carry out their duty.
Those married to military personnel have to find ways to manage whilst their other half is on exercise or in a war zone for prolonged periods – trying to cope with not knowing if their partner is safe, whilst potentially taking on the role of a single parent until their spouse returns. As well as dealing with the pressures put on maintaining this unique relationship, there are all the challenges that come with the military lifestyle, with probably the most affecting of these to be the high mobility rates. Most military families move around every 18-24 months. With each relocation they are faced with the task of integrating themselves into a new community and, if they move abroad, country. The military community has its own subculture with its own set of unique challenges separate from those of civilians. Although us ‘civvies’ may face some of these aspects at certain stages of our lives – such as moving to a new place or having a partner away from home – military families are exposed to such circumstances more frequently, and even simultaneously. I interviewed two British Army wives to find out how they have managed to make the most out of their lifestyle, focusing on the opportunities that arise with it.
Most military families move around every 18-24 months. With each relocation they are faced with the task of integrating themselves into a new community and, if they move abroad, country.
Asking my interviewees how many houses they have lived in really put into perspective just how routine mobility is within the service lifestyle. I was told by one participant, who had only been married to her husband for two years, that she had already lived in three houses. Having been married for 32 years, my other participant told me that she had lived in 13 different places across Northern Germany and England. In fact, this was supposed to have been 14, however one house became unavailable due to subsidence of the property – which the family only found out a few weeks before they were due to move in. It exemplifies the common living situation that military families have to endure when things don’t go to plan with housing: having the serving member living in the barracks and commuting to the family home on weekends and holidays. In this case, this was the dynamic for an entire year, enforcing upon the wife to take on the role of the primary caregiver within their household. Even when a military family does manage to relocate together, personnel may be required to participate in military operations immediately afterwards leaving the rest of the family to adapt to a new neighbourhood, or even country, without them. As a result of this, partners of those who serve have to become fiercely independent, throwing themselves into accustoming both themselves and their children into new workplaces, schools, and communities.
Military communities seem to be much more close-knit than the average civilian estate – although, within the former, neighbours usually live among one another for a much shorter time. Living in married quarters, families often live close to or within military bases, separated from the surrounding non-military community. One partner told me of how shocked the permanent residents were when she put an invite to her book club through their letterbox; apparently in the many years that they had lived next to an army neighbourhood, this was the first time that they had communicated with them. This is not to say that friendships are not made between these two groups – according to the accounts taken into consideration for this article, in some ways those outside the military bubble can be easier to open up to. This, I was told, was because complaining to a fellow member of the military community could come across as insensitive, i.e. their neighbours’ partner might be away for longer, or they may have younger children than they do. With that being said, service families seem to be better at understanding each other. I was told of instances where civilians have been overwhelmed by ‘straightforward’ military attitudes. For instance, on her child’s first day of school, one wife told me of how her no-time-wasting approach to introducing herself to fellow parents and organising playdates was met by someone criticising military folk for being ‘too forward’, to which her response was “I wish I had the time to waste!”, she laughed as she told me.
Social clubs are another tool for integration and support used by the partners of those serving in the armed forces. Although, such groups have bad reputations for being ‘cliquey’. However, I was told that perhaps the reason that groups receive criticism for this is due to members sticking to who they know instead of welcoming new members, as they are nervous to meet new people. The intention is not to be exclusive, although some are ‘rank conscious’ who join for ingenuine reasons. This, of course, varies within different military communities, although I was told overall genuine connections are made in these groups, helping each other through difficult times by setting up cinema trips, babysitting, organised runs and even activities with army equipment to boost morale amongst military spouses (I was told of how one group of women were given basic training in driving tanks!). The one group that is spoken of very highly in all of the discussions that I had in researching for this article was the Military Wives Choir, the story of which has been recently retold in the heart-warming 2019 film. Since the first one was formed, 75 have been created across the world in British army bases.
Military spouses have to constantly live with the possibility that their partner will be sent into a war zone, or other dangerous situations, risking death or serious injury. When I asked how they coped during such circumstances, both wives told me that the key is keeping themselves busy. Having a ‘Chuff Chart’ (not a ‘Chuffed Chart’, as Military Wives incorrectly labelled it) helped break up the long months whilst partners were away. This is a calendar in which you input positive upcoming events to look forward to, in order to stay in high spirits and make the time pass quicker. In the age of 24-hour news, there are many difficulties when trying to detach oneself from the ongoing conflict to not become completely consumed with fear. During such times, there is a local awareness of acknowledging that they must be especially supportive of each other. From making sure to invite one another over for dinner and coffee, to organising events and activities within community centres to boost morale. In the times before mobile phones were commonplace, “sending a Bluey” (a quicker form of mail for serving personnel) to their significant other to get things off their chest, even mundane matters, was a helpful coping mechanism for when they were apart from their partners. Ultimately, however, the military community has to stick by the mantra of ‘keep calm and carry on’: partners to those who serve have to continue with day-to-day life, trying to not worry.