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Friday, August 15, 2008

Michelle Obama Speaks to Military Families: I'd Like to Join Her

As a military wife for 13 of my husband's 23 years as a US Navy veteran, I can unequivocally say Mrs. Michelle Obama is doing something no one like her has ever done before.

Mrs. Obama is a beautifully high profile, potential fist lady to a President, who is visiting with military families and listening to them - really listening - to their stories. This is amazing, because life as a military wife means obeying. Knowing someone is actually listening, indeed, is rare.

Mrs. Obama's military families listening tour is hardly noticed by the big money media markets. Although support for veterans, especially during a time of undeclared war in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all the buzz, it's not very challenging to listen to their families speak about recurring hardships. Low pay and constant change are the least of the hardships. Oh yes, there are the Navy Relief societies and chaplains. While those resources look great in the chain of command, they are actually desperation charities. Really impoverished families use them for the purposes of support. Ordained and commissioned chaplains are primarily focused on the active duty military person, providing token attention to the daily plight of families outside of Sunday services. Having someone listen to pleas for support from families is almost non-existent in the military.

I discovered Mrs. Obama's round table discussions by accidentally catching a C-Span forum held in Norfolk, VA. Her attractive attentiveness to everyone who spoke was noteworthy.

Ironically, my husband and our family lived in Norfolk VA for 6 of our Navy years. My husband was stationed aboard the USS Intrepid (CVS 11) - yes, it's the aircraft carrier now museum that will hopefully return to its place in New York Harbor some day soon. Additionally, my husband was also stationed with HC-6, a helicopter squadron; and he was a US Navy corrections counselor at the infamous brig when the low morale of active duty Vietnam War Veterans were filling the bleak cells of the old military prison.

So, I know what it's like to be a military wife in Norfolk VA. It's lonely. In spite of a warmly cordial civilian population in Norfolk, the multitude of various military commands are confusing and perennial lifestyle changes are considered normal. A spouse is on shore duty; or on sea duty; or is promoted; or is not promoted so, therefore, must move; or on temporary duty someplace else while the family stays behind; or, on weekend watch, or living on base or must move off base. Changes never end. Everybody accepts change as being ho-hum. Except, it isn't, especially for children.

Wives never know who their pediatrician or obstetrician will be when they see a physician. Medical records get lost. Civilian housing is expensive. Waiting lists for base housing contain so many rules, one never knows how long of a civilian lease to sign. Consequently, families pray for any housing opening to save money, regardless of the neighborhood. Moreover, during a time of war, the lives of families are burdened with the additionally anxiety of safety. Thank goodness for e-mail, because, when I was a military wife, the snail mail only arrived whenever the ship happened to get it to a port where there was a post office. Families of submarine sailors and officers hardly ever received mail.

As a result of the stress caused by separation hardships, I was not at all surprised by the focused reception Mrs. Obama received from her forum audience - who were both officers and enlisted families, Marines and Navy.

This was was absolutely not a campaign rally. Walls were barren of campaign posters; flashy buttons did not appear. There were no prepared speeches. People who attended, nearly all women, sat quietly until they were motivated to speak. Mrs. Obama responded with intelligent sensitivity to every speaker.

"Few sacrifice more to serve their country than you, and I know that too often it seems like you're doing it on your own,” Mrs. Obama told participants in a round table discussion of military families at Norfolk Virginia's Old Dominion University. (Reported by The Washington Times

My life as a military wife ended in 1981, but the plight of the families has not changed much over time. In fact, the stress is worsened by an additional factor I never experienced. Many of the families spoke about caring for the parents of the active duty members while they are deployed. In other words, a wife must care for a mother-in-law while the son is absent. So, this is an additional stress. A spouse cares for a home, keeps a budget, raises children; plus, often, cares for aging parents. This is likely because the parents of military personnel are living longer and therefore requiring long term care. A sandwich generation of military families is an entirely new and stressful (not to mention expensive) generational development.

To say, "Thank You Mrs. Obama" for your support for military families is an understatement.

In fact, if it were possible for me to join her, believe me, I'd be there in a heartbeat. Indeed, Mrs. Obama, if you or somebody who knows you reads this blog, please contact me so I can participate in your listening tour. I'd just like to be a reporter on the beat or the person who passes around the microphone.

More important, I'd like to journal all the heartfelt stories we'd hear on this tour.

So, if anybody is listening to me, a military wife 25 years removed, please do me the honor of asking for my help. And, of course, thank you Mrs. Obama for finally giving our nations military families the listening respect they rightfully deserve.

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