By Lizann Lightfoot
Although the military cannot give official assignments to spouses, the spouse of the highest ranking officer assumes unofficial duties at unit events. A commanding officer’s spouse is typically expected to act as the commander of the spouse group, get to know other spouses, and bring out the best in everyone.
Some CO spouses handle these tasks with strength and grace. I have seen CO spouses help everyone laugh and relax before deployment. I know CO spouses who have coordinated meals for new families or for moms who have babies while their spouse is away.
However, not every unit has an engaged CO spouse. Even when the CO is married, not every CO spouse is a Stepford Wife. Not all CO spouses are natural-born leaders. I know some who don’t like to make public appearances. Others are focused on their career and don’t have time to volunteer at unit events.
Finally, some are young or new to military life. It is easy for an inexperienced spouse to blur the lines between public and private life.
This made me wonder: Does the military train spouses for their unofficial leadership positions? It turns out, they do.
Who is eligible for CO spouse training?
A CO or Executive Officer (XO) assignment is typically for service members rank O-5 or above. Some classes are advertised for spouses of any service member in a “leadership position.”
The Army recognizes the important role that spouses of command leadership have at unit events. The US Army Sergeants Major Academy (USASMA), which trains newly-promoted E-9s, recently started offering training classes to enlisted spouses. A Sergeant Major’s spouse is “the face and voice of a new command, supporting their [service member] at a whole host of installation events. You are going to be a senior leader within your community, even if you don’t wear a uniform,” says Sgt. Major Dennis Defreese, the USASMA commandant. Spouses of anyone rank E-8 and above (including National Guard spouses) can apply for the class, which is offered monthly at Ft. Hood.
What happens at CO spouse training?
It’s not all about tea parties and fundraisers. Training guidelines vary slightly between different branches, but the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard all offer some type of class for new CO or XO spouses. The training is usually offered simultaneously with the service member’s Command Leadership Course. Several days of classes allow incoming CO spouses to learn about leadership, public speaking, Family Readiness programs, conflict resolution, social media use, and OPSEC. Classes combine lectures with small group discussions and sometimes hands-on projects.
The Army requires spouses to prepare and present a short speech. The Navy helps spouses draft a personal vision statement and Command Tour Charter to prepare them for their next assignment. The Marine Corps includes a protocol presentation at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
What do CO spouses think about taking training classes?
Although some may view the classes as an inconvenience, most CO spouses seem to appreciate and enjoy the opportunity to learn about their role at their service member’s new command. By the time someone reaches a command position, they have typically been an officer for at least 10 years, but that doesn’t mean their spouse has had equal military exposure.
One Marine Corps spouse reported that yes, classes discussed things like etiquette, dress code, and being appropriate–similar to what you would learn in the hotel service industry. They also covered helpful topics like security and what to post online. She said the small groups were the most helpful because they allowed you to ask questions and get feedback from the topics of the day.
One Navy spouse reported, “We are going to a large ship and I have had a great deal of fear. Now I have some new tools to use, and I’m excited instead of dreading it.”
Can anyone fail CO spouse training?
Most CO classes are designed to impart information. Participants are not tested, and there are no grades or situations where you could “fail out” of the class. Perhaps the true test of a CO spouse comes later, once they reach their assignment. Will they use their skills and personality to improve family life in the unit? Or will they embarrass their service member by posting inappropriate photos on social media? Only time will tell which CO spouses make the grade.
Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.