This is what civilians need to know about military families


(Photo: US Marines, Lance Cpl. Clare Shaffer)

Civilians can ask the weirdest questions. Ever since my boyfriend became a Marine 16 years ago, I have faced some absurd and sometimes completely inappropriate questions. When he first deployed to Iraq, people said:

  • How can you love someone who is a killer?
  • Aren’t you worried that he will die?
  • If he loved you, he wouldn’t have enlisted.
  • I’m a pacifist, so I don’t think the military should exist.

A few years later, just before we were married, friends and family asked me:

  • You can tell him to get stationed around here, right?
  • Does he still have to deploy now that he has a family?
  • Good thing you won’t have to work because the government gives you free housing!

Oh, people. I know many civilians mean well when they inquire about the military lifestyle, but sometimes there is just no filter on the things people will say to a military family. So to set the record straight, here is what we all wish civilians knew and understood about military families. (As a military spouse, I’m a civilian too, which puts me in a unique situation to translate between the civilian and military world.)

What military families wished civilians understood

Yes, every military spouse worries about their service member. Deployments are hard. No matter how well a spouse or children appear to be coping, they all carry the emotional burden of a deployment for the entire time the service member is gone. Please don’t make it weird by asking about death or starting a political debate with us. We just want our loved ones to come home safely.

No, military families aren’t rich. Ha! I honestly don’t understand where this stereotype comes from. Sure, most of us are not poor either, although some families are below the poverty line at the earlier enlisted ranks. Military paychecks are public information. But here is what you need to understand: Because of the frequent moves and challenging locations of military bases, many military spouses struggle to find work. The military paycheck is not a single income; it is a family wage. Is it possible to support a family, even in the enlisted ranks? Yes. But is anyone getting rich from military service? No. In fact, we still qualified for WIC  after 15 years of military service.

There is so much about our lives that the government controls. Military families don’t get a vote in where they will live, when they will move, how often they will deploy, or when they are allowed to take leave. I understand it is mind-boggling that we may not be able to come home for a family event like a wedding or a funeral, but that is common in military life. Service members often miss the birth of their own children because of deployments. (My husband only missed one out of four births, which is a pretty good record.)

Sometimes, we simply don’t know the answer. We understand you are excited to have the service member return home from deployment or take leave for the holidays, but those dates are never set in stone. We get “windows” of expected dates. . . and then those timelines shift or change at the last minute. Spouses don’t have a security clearance. If we aren’t giving you a specific answer, it’s because we don’t have one. Believe me: We always wish we knew more details!

Military benefits aren’t free. Service members work long hours and make huge sacrifices for their benefits. Please stop complaining about military families getting free housing. We pay for it! It is just subtracted directly from the service member’s paycheck if you live on base. We currently pay over $2,000 a month to rent an old house on base. As for the “free” healthcare, yes, we can set up a free appointment on base. . .if we wait a month for the appointment with the PCM, just to get a referral to another office the following month. Many families choose to pay co-pays so they can go to civilian doctors off base. Yes, it is affordable, and it’s a huge benefit, but it is not free.

TV doesn’t always get it right. No, our lives are not like Army Wives. Most military movies spend a total of three minutes developing the character of the military spouse. . . and she typically spends that time pregnant and crying. The news doesn’t always get it right, either. Some of us don’t even watch the news because of the amount of misinformation about the military. Military life is challenging and complex, not something you can understand after watching a few clips of homecoming videos.

Military families have diverse political views. You may have a (false) impression that we are all gun-toting, conservative rednecks, but that isn’t true. There are liberal military spouses, some have a higher education than their service member, and we come from every state in the country. Some spouses are anti-war, don’t agree with the President, or never thought they would have anything to do with the military. Military spouses are not ambassadors from the White House. . . so please don’t make assumptions about our political views.

By Lizann Lightfoot

Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at lizann@militaryoneclick.com.

19 Comments

  1. This is a great article! Thank you for sharing. Most civilians don’t understand; but it’s not their fault, they just don’t have the perspective of living a Military life.

  2. Thank you for sharing , I really do hope and pray most people out there do understand , My Dad was in service a Marine for 47 months it wasn’t easy for our Mom either , God knows they are both in heaven now may they R.I.P. , anyway I have always said and always will God bless all men and woman in Uniform and may they all stay safe … If any of you need to talk I’m usally here , life isn’t easy believe me I know !!

    1. You need to read the article again. The author used that as a general opinion some people have. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “you work for the Navy so you’re Repubican right?” “Your son’s are Marines so your/theyre ….” It’s fact that Some people think because you’re associated with the military you believe a certain way.

  3. best acticle ive read in a while,its true are families are rich,but rich in lov,,and as a former military wife my biggest grip is no military family should be on food stamps,ever,,

  4. Great article. My biggest pet peeve is when friends would say oh your son gets free housing and food. I guess they never had to live on a aircraft carrier, lol or eat on a ship.

  5. I love how you talk about how the government controls your life. It always makes you make decisions you might not want to take but feel it is necessary. About 7 1/2 years when my husband and I got engaged, shortly after we found out he was deploying in a few months. So between all the training involved and time he would spend away (and everything the spouse take care of during deployment) we decided to get courthouse married and do a wedding when he got back. Still to this day, no matter how much I try to explain, my family still doesn’t understand and makes a big deal about how we did it. 😕 And still never got my big wedding because they refused to help because of the way we had to do it.

  6. My pet peeve: you use the term BASE throughout your article. It is ONLY a BASE if it is Air Force, so you are leaving out many of the military.

    1. Not true. It’s called a Base all through out the military. My husband and I live on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. But it’s also referenced as “base” when we’re talking to our family and friends. We have two Navy bases south of us and another Marine Corps base North of us.
      When I lived in Washington we lived a couple hours south of Joint Base Lewis and McChord which is an army and air force base. I don’t think the author meant any disrespect and I don’t believe she intended to leave out any branches either.

    2. Not so. I believe both Navy and Marines use the term “base”, maybe also Air Force, not sure. I was an Army brat and we always referred to home as ‘On Post’. Josephine may well be right that all housing is called base housing. Even in the Army the housing office called it that.

      MY pet peeve Terri, is that you read her entire article and all you came out with is that fact that she only used the term ‘Base’!!!

    3. Meh army brat here we call it base, post, fort _____ etc. Don’t know where you got we don’t call it base at all…….

  7. My disappointment is the real estate who are in control of most of the housing out of base, they hike up the prices on rent thinking the military guys are earning big paychecks, can afford the rent but the truth is they’re not, you find 2 or 3 family or members sharing the rent cause rent is so high, spouses are working to make ends meet, some have to apply for benefits like food stamps. If our government would take better care of our military we would have more serving, they sacrifice their lives for us pay them what they’re worth. My husband was in the Army in Vietnam and in the reserves to support us.

  8. I’m a mother, mother in law and a widow of a Marine. I worry, worry ,worry. I have faith they are well trained. And everything is not free. I do feel the dependents should get free college or training of their choice.

  9. Not to mention the cost of uniforms and gear that the service people are responsible to buy on their own

  10. This is a wonderful informative article. This article speaks well to civilians when talking / asking questions of military parents. We are often ask very inappropriate questions. People often want to tell how awful the military is and how bad your child, and or son / daughter in law is treated while in the military. No parents do not want to hear this. Thank you for sharing this article.

  11. People really don’t understand. When you enlist, you are there to serve your country. You do what you’re told, when you’re told and how. Your life is no longer your own. You take an oath to obey. You are expected to do things above and beyond, heroic things. It takes a special type of person to be military. The military is like family. This article really hits the nail on the head. Please, don’t ask “stupid” questions.

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