Dear Air Force,
It’s been 9 years, 11 months, and 28 days since I became an Air Force wife. Now, just 2 days shy of 10 years, I am here to bid you adieu.
We’ve had quite the streak, you and I. I know it’s not much compared to military wives whose husbands are on the path to being generals or chief-master sergeants. I don’t pretend I’ve had it worse than those who’ve been through year-long deployment after year-long deployment, who have had to give birth alone, move alone, and cope with multiple years of being without their partner.
Still, I’ve learned that the existence of others with more pain doesn’t invalidate my own pain or my own feelings. My voice is my own. And so here I am, to proclaim publicly the message I’ve kept private from most of the world till now.
I’m breaking up with you, Air Force. And it’s not me– it’s you.
In the interest of fairness, I want to begin this letter by acknowledging the good things that have come from your control of my husband’s life for almost ten years. Job security has been a big one. So has flight pay, housing allowance, and regularly scheduled raises. Even though I have fantasized about how much financial security I would sacrifice for the sake of being free of you, Air Force, I will admit that the money thing was nice. (But you’re kind of like a sugar daddy. At some point the shit we have to put up with just isn’t worth the money any longer.)
I will also acknowledge that without you dragging me through six moves in seven years, Air Force, there are many relationships I would never have had; relationships that have enriched my life, given me strength and courage, challenged my preconceptions, and made me a deeper, kinder, better person than I was ten years ago. You can’t take credit for the relationships themselves, Air Force, but you gave me the opportunity of making friends I would otherwise never have known. For that, I am grateful.
There’s one more thing I’m thankful for– my husband’s remote tour to Korea. I was beyond pissed when you decided to take him from me for a year, and leave me to solo-parent our 8 month old. I still don’t feel comfortable looking back on that time and saying, “It was worth it.” But in spite of the crappiness, it was the year that woke me up out of my codependency. Because my husband wasn’t around for me to make the center of my existence (because that’s what I thought good military wives were supposed to do), I started to think about who I was, and who I wanted to be. It set me on a journey that continues to this day. Air Force, you don’t get the credit, because it was the exact opposite of what you wanted– but still, it happened. I wouldn’t be who I am today without that year.
That seems like a convenient segue into my reasons for breaking up with you. That awakening was bad for you, Air Force– you’re only too delighted to have wives whose lives revolve around their husbands, because of course, you want the husbands’ lives to revolve around you. “Family First” is one of your mottos, but you’re a fucking hypocrite, Air Force, because it’s family last and always has been. You don’t give a shit about the families.
Sure, there are individuals who care– a commander, a doctor, a chaplain– but you, the Air Force, the system, the giant Machine that chews people up, gnawing on them to get every last molecule of their usefulness to you before you spit them out, you couldn’t care less. You constantly pit service members against their families’ needs and you threaten them into compliance with your agenda, and punish them if they step outside it. You force them into lying about their own mental health to protect their careers. You treat those who serve you like dirt, and if someone dares speak up you turn around and gaslight them, “You know what you signed up for!” “Do you hate America?” “Look at all the opportunities we’ve given you!”
You have your own special methods for dealing with the spouses. First you tell us how important we are, how much our spouses need our support. Then you redefine “support” into meaning “never, ever, ever complain about my spouse’s career, never do anything that gets in the way of my spouse’s career, and always remember that my primary identity is military spouse. Who I am and what I want is always secondary.” You encourage the cliques and the clubs where we all show up with our polished masks on. We can offer each other some level of support, of commiseration, but we all know deep down that those of us who really hate this life, who are being wrecked by this life, had better keep it to ourselves or we’ll be judged because we’re not “supporting” our spouses.
Air Force, you are a special kind of hell for those of us with mental health struggles. The first time I felt suicidal, I knew that there was no point in asking anyone in your system for help. I remember yelling to my husband, “they don’t care unless I threaten to kill myself! That is the only thing that gets any attention!” And I was right. When I did go to a base ER, after months of suicidal ideations, nobody in the system cared how miserable I was, how hopeless I felt, how little I could function in my day-to-day life. They just wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t actually kill myself, because that would reflect poorly on the Air Force. I was not offered any physical, tangible, practical help– we had to find that on our own. And then, when I was starting to see some progress, when I finally had a mental health team in place (no thanks to you, Air Force), and I was just starting to feel a little more stable, in you came, declaring in your infinite indifference that it was time for our family to move, back to the place in the middle of nowhere where my mental health had first tanked, and where I would lose all the support I had fought to find for myself. Even when we did all the paperwork, explaining all the reasons why such a move would be a mental and physical risk for me, nobody cared. My husband’s superiors didn’t care. The paperwork pushers didn’t care. The people who decided on the assignments didn’t care. The system did not give a shit about us, and not until my husband risked his career and went to the commander of the entire base to plead our case were we heard. And then, suddenly, the move wasn’t necessary any longer. The assignment that just had to have my husband to fill it disappeared. We could breathe again, at least for a year.
But that experience left us cynical. We knew now beyond a shadow of a doubt that we could not depend on you, Air Force, to have our back, not even in the most extreme cases. We knew that you would continue to bleed us until nothing was left but our dry husks. We knew that our time remaining in indentured servitude to you was a game and we had to play it for our best interests, because nobody else was looking out for us.
So we did. We played the game. We kept our cards close to our chests, and we let people think what they wanted, let them assume my husband had aspirations that he didn’t, nod and smile when people talked about five-year-plans and down-the-road assignments. We built our contingency plan and our safety plan. And then, when we reached the point where you didn’t have the power to hurt us any longer, we told you we were leaving for good.
And Air Force, just like an abusive husband, you shrug your collective shoulders and move on to your next victim. There are plenty of them who don’t have the means or ability to leave you, service members who have no access to base commanders who just might help them, who can’t afford mental health care, who are trapped. And you’ll keep on chewing them up, bleeding them dry, all the while telling them how privileged they are to get to serve you.
You’re a monster, Air Force. And I can say it out loud now, because you can’t hurt me any longer.
P.S. If you are a service member or a spouse who is happy in the military life, I am happy that you are happy. There are people whose personalities, temperament, goals, and health work well with the military life. Maybe you have played the game and gotten most of what you want out of the Air Force. All I ask is that you recognize that there is a level of luck in your happiness and success. For many people who are different than you, and not so lucky as you, the life can be awful.
P.P.S. Anybody who says “the military life is whatever you make it” can go sit on a porcupine. That’s the same line of thinking as, “What did you say to make him hit you?” You do not know what it is like to be anybody but yourself. Also, “you knew what you were signing up for” is only true if the person has gone through the exact same shitty experience with the military before. You could grow up a military brat with all your friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, and sisters in the military, and still have a completely different experience from them.
P.S.P.S. “You sound angry and bitter.” Why yes, I am. What an astute observation. Yes I am angry at a system that treats people this way, and angry that it will keep on treating people this way because the Military Industrial Complex in this country does not care about the people it abuses.
P.P.S.S. If you’re a military spouse who is stuck in a life you hate and you are feeling alone, I see you. Feel free to reach out if you need someone to listen. firstname.lastname@example.org