Unpaid and Unsupported - How Women's Work Keeps the U.S. MIlitary Going

T-shirt for sale at U.S. Cavalry, the Army surplus store facing the main gate at Ft. Campbell
T-shirt for sale at U.S. Cavalry, the Army surplus store facing the main gate at Ft. Campbell
By Sarah Lazare
Nov 26, 2013

One year ago I embarked on an investigative story about how the U.S. military makes invisible and denies the wounds of war that spouses and families of service members bear and abandons them when they need mental health care. In my months of research at the massive Fort Campbell Army post at the Kentucky/Tennessee border; conversations with spouses and their families; and interviews with mental health providers inside and outside the military; I learned that the process whereby spouses are wounded and cast aside is not just a byproduct of U.S. war, but integral to it.

In other words, the exploitation of (majority female) spouses’ labor and destruction of their bodies and mental health underlies—and underpins—the past 12 years of U.S.-led wars.

There are many pieces to this puzzle that were not included in my article. For example, the command employs peer pressure and threat of retaliation against service members and their families to coerce spouses into participating in "Family Readiness Groups" which are controlled by the chain of command and squeeze unpaid labor from spouses. Through these FRGs, spouses are expected to organize and participate in military social functions and provide informal support for each other as the military mental health system fails them. Given the lack of other support structures, this can function as a vital space for survival and aid between spouses. Yet I was told by some spouses that the FRG also serves as a tool of control—“crazy" wives are brought in line through this structure and taught absorb their partners' trauma without making a scene. (The issue of social control of military spouses, as well as resistance to it, is something Cynthia Enloe takes on in her book Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics).

Furthermore, spouses are tasked with the uphill battle of keeping the family afloat during long deployments, as well as “normal” military life, in an environment gripped by trauma and poverty. This is labor that allows the poor to keep fighting and the military to keep recruiting them. While it is difficult to describe the unique mix of militarism and hardship that grips Fort Campbell, and the gendered relations within it (not all spouses are female, not all partners are married spouses, and not all partners and loved ones are civilian), here are some observations I made when I first drove into town.

Arriving in Fort Campbell, I am gripped with the déjà vu I experience every time I enter a military base town. Billboards tower over empty parking lots screaming out the wares of pawn shops, nail salons, used car dealerships, emergency loans for military service members, legal services. Strip clubs advertise their services in half-broken neon lights. Low-end strip malls and six lane roads decorate the horizon.

I drive past the Wal Mart superstore that yesterday was filled with Army wives lining the aisles buying food for the children they care for alone while their husbands are deployed. On my left I see the U.S. Cavalry Army surplus store, filled with guns and “Proud Army Wife” T-Shirts, facing the main entrance to the base. 

This is the side of the war that faces the U.S.—these hidden, struggling base towns, smothered in poverty, filled with businesses clamoring to make money off of service members and their families. 

I became convinced working on this project that the wars could not continue as-is without the unpaid and unrecognized labor of civilian spouses and partners. Yet this price is normalized and made invisible by narratives of war—a process illustrated in the following excerpt from my article.

The Army's attitude to spouses' mental-health struggles is perhaps best captured in the "New Military Spouse Handbook" distributed at family-support centers at the sprawling Fort Campbell Army base on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. The purple pamphlet, with an illustration of a bride and a uniformed groom on the cover, instructs spouses not to get upset about their partners' anger, exhaustion, mood swings or deployments. The handbook offers instructions on how to dress for formal Army functions and write thank-you cards but provides scant information on mental-health problems that families might face or resources that can address these issues. "We are super spouses," the pamphlet reads. "No matter (what) the world throws at us, we can be OK."

While my investigations focused on U.S. military communities, they raised chilling questions about the trauma that spreads to civilian populations living under U.S.-led occupations and drone wars, and in the 1,000 U.S. military base towns across the world. If this is what is happening to U.S. military communities that are ostensibly (though not really) supported by the military and broader U.S. society and have medical coverage on paper, what does this mean for civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Jordan, Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and all the other places touched by U.S. presence? What are the relations of gendered exploitation and violence that are normalized and perpetuated by the U.S. military across the world?  

Would U.S. occupation and empire be possible without the unrecognized and traumatic labor of women?

The attached photos show Army wife schwag displayed U.S. Cavalry, the Army surplus store facing Gate 4--the main entrance to the Fort Campbell base.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Sarah Lazare lives in Portland, Maine where she is an assistant news producer for Common Dreams. Sarah is an independent journalist and organizer in U.S. anti-war and anti-militarist movements, as a member of War Times and The Civilian-Soldier Alliance, an organization that supports veteran and G.I. movements against U.S.-led wars. Sarah has organized around issues of Palestine solidarity, economic justice, and migrant rights, and she is co-editor of the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

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