Home Alone

Plenty, says Karen Houppert, a Village Voice writer who spent two years interviewing a group of wives living at cold, windswept Fort Drum army base in upstate New York, as well as wives at other bases around the country. Her reporting reaches from the last days of the war in Afghanistan into the first year of the invasion of Iraq and provides an essential and much overlooked view inside Planet Military.

“The big hidden cost for service members, of course, is that they may go to war and die,” says Houppert. Or if they don’t die, they could go to war and not come home for a year or two. Or they could come back maimed: Kris Atherton returned from Iraq with an amputated arm and a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Houppert’s account of life as a military wife strips the veneer off of headlines announcing American casualties in Iraq and exposes the toll war takes on families at home. But more than just a chronicle of war widows’ grief, her book shows us how day by day these spouses earn the right to boast, as it says on a Fort Bragg minivan bumper sticker: “Army wife: the toughest job in the Army.” Military spouses cope with childcare hassles, teenage moodiness, car pools, lawn care–all the same challenges parents face in the civilian world. Only they do it alone. For months at a time–all the while never knowing if their husbands will make it back safely.

The lives of families on the 170 military bases are, as Houppert describes it, closely prescribed by a “labyrinth of rules.” At Fort Drum, home to 8,800 family members and 11,000 soldiers, a 129-page “Resident’s Guide to Family Housing” spells out prohibitions against the use of clotheslines, trampolines, fences, waterbeds, ceiling fans, gardens, and wallpaper borders (except by special dispensation). Grass must be kept below four inches in height. Kool-Aid should not be served near carpeted areas.

Children cannot leave toys on the sidewalks. Holiday lights may be lit only from dusk until 10 p.m. and should be removed by the second week in January. Dogs must have an identifying micro-chip inserted in their ears and there is a two-pet maximum. Even the logistics and protocol of death and military burial are carefully orchestrated down to the dress blue uniforms worn by the casualty notification officers, or “notifiers,” to every sentence they utter, to the brand new 70,000-square-foot morgue built in Dover, Del., with room for 380 military caskets.

The other hidden cost for soldiers and their families “is a demand that they surrender self-determination to the institution.” Handbooks for military wives suggest that they should not complain to husbands overseas because it is their responsibility to help strengthen their spouses’ morale. By maintaining a happy home, wives are being patriots and doing their bit for the country, the military, and their husbands’ careers. Not until 1988 did the DOD stop the practice of incorporating commentaries on a wife’s behavior in her husband’s job review, but there is still overt disapproval when the authorities find Mrs. GI Joe failing to put his career first. Realizing that their soldiers aren’t going to be happy unless their families are, the Army has tried to provide support through its Army Family Team Building program. But such programs go only so far in countering the loneliness and isolation that comes with being a military spouse.

There are, for instance, Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) which function as support groups for military wives. FRGs engage in such morale-boosting activities as raising money to send supplies to soldiers and organizing phone trees to keep wives totally up to date about unit mobilizations. Wives often volunteer as much as 40 hours a week at their local FRG–partly because they can’t get paying jobs. Military bases are located in remote areas where skilled jobs are scarce; even when employment is available, families are transferred from base to base so frequently that it is hard for wives to keep jobs.

Also, the husbands’ long absences mean that neither parent would be home to provide child care were the wife working outside the home. Given these three factors, very few military wives are able to develop meaningful careers. Some of them find a sense of community, self-worth, and patriotism when they volunteer at their FRGs, but others who happen to have jobs or choose to volunteer off base, feel pressured to participate. When one army wife Houppert profiled criticized her FRG in the “Military Spouse” column of Fort Drum’s local paper, she was treated like a heretic.

But the greatest sin is to speak out against any war to which the troops may be assigned. Houppert had trouble convincing wives who opposed the Iraq war to talk to her because they did not want their views published. Being anti-war is a gateway drug to that other seditious offense, Hurting Your Husband’s Career. One former female soldier told Houppert that people were afraid to criticize any army policy in the post newspaper. “It’s ironic that we’re charged with defending all these freedoms we’re denied as members of the military.”

Interestingly, Houppert dispenses with the question of male military spouses in her introduction, where she argues that 94 percent of military spouses are wives. Still, I find this omission significant in light of the rising numbers of women in the military and newsmagazine cover stories asking what happens when mom goes to war. As of 2002, (according to the Women’s Research & Education Institute) 15 percent of U.S. service personnel were women, and approximately 10 percent of U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are women.

The most chilling chapter in Home Fires Burning describes the serious problem with domestic violence on the base, or to use yet another military euphemism, the “spousal aggression issue.” It turns out that the rate of domestic violence in the military is two to five times higher than in the civilian population. Houppert goes back to the country’s largest military base, Fort Bragg, N.C., where in the summer of 2002 four wives were murdered, allegedly by their husbands or ex-husbands, in a six week period. That summer of 2002, it was statistically more dangerous to be an army wife than a Fort Bragg soldier. Houppert tells the lesser-known story of Tabitha Croom, a former stripper who was murdered in 1999 at Fort Bragg. The evidence pointed to Croom’s Special Forces boyfriend, but in a classically oxymoronic case of “military justice,” the murder was never prosecuted and the suspect was honorably discharged. Croom’s case is one of so many that prove that the military justice system is built on an inherent conflict of interest. “Military courts-martial were created with a primary goal: maintaining control in the ranks. Justice was secondary,” writes Houppert.

Karen Houppert was 14 in June 1977 when her 36-year-old father’s T-33 airplane crashed into a potato field outside Brussels on a routine mission, a searing experience which has given her a special kind of emotional access to her subjects. She does an excellent job of capturing the hardships they face. Yet Houppert doesn’t spend much time on the many women (and some men) who willingly chose to marry into the military and are proud of the sacrifices they make. Houppert has given us an important and wrenching coming-of-age story of an entire sector of women who, because their husbands chose such an honorable profession, are often prohibited from “being all that they can be.”

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