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There's a fantasy about what military service and living on base is really like, and usually it's told from the perspective of a well-meaning civilian. From beautiful (free) homes to sappy-romance-fueled tours of duty, the running narrative about military life just isn't true, and it's time to set the record straight.
While I can confirm it's no myth that our service members always look fierce in uniform, the majority of what you think you know about military family life is about to get turned on its head. I hate to break it to you, but it's not all Nicholas Sparks novels and sunshine.
Below are some of my favorite myths — with a swift kick of truth to follow.
MYTH 1: Everyone lives on base in free houses. Not everyone lives on base, and if we do, those houses aren't free. We pay rent every month like everyone else. Part of the military paycheck includes something called BAH (basic allowance for housing) but that's not a freebie, it's a part of the salary package our service members receive for their jobs. (A veteran and current Navy wife did a fantastic job crunching the numbers to show you exactly how BAH works.) It turns out most military families can't even afford to live off-base on a service member's housing allowance. It makes our not-actually-free base houses less of a perk and more of a necessity.
MYTH 2: Deployments are romantic. Deployments are difficult, lonely, and create a lot of stress and hardship on the families. This year, a friend's daughter is graduating high school, and her dad just deployed – meaning he won't be there to see his oldest walk across the stage. My husband deployed before the birth of our first, and five days after the birth of our second child, and has missed too many holidays and birthdays to count. Skype is a newer luxury of deployments, but don't think that means every deployed service member gets to video chat with his or her family. My husband recently returned from a 7-month deployment where we got to Skype once for 15 minutes — and that was far better than when he served in Afghanistan, where we would go months without contact. Remember: Deployment is hard on the spouse who's deployed, too !
MYTH 3: We have world-class free healthcare. A common myth among civilians is that military families have access to some of the best healthcare in the world, and it is completely free. Unfortunately, that's not quite the case. A recent report in the New York Times found that care at military hospitals is inferior when compared to civilian health facilities. When you take this into consideration, along with the difficulty many military and retiree families have getting appointments, the "800 milligrams of ibuprofen cures all" mentality of the battalion medics who care for our servicemen and women, high co-pays for dental and vision for families, and zero coverage for chiropractic or alternative treatments, you see that "world-class" and "completely free" is a bit of a misnomer.
MYTH 4: We make a lot of money. Gawd. This one gets me every time. It's no secret what military members make, because it's published online every year. Salaries are based on rank and time in service. Here's something to consider: a Walmart store manager makes more than my husband who has served for more than 18 years, been in combat, deployed six times, and has missed more than 5 years with his family due to training, deployments and courses. If an enlisted military family consists of two children and two parents, they will be below the poverty line until the service member reaches the rank of E7, which can take 10 years or longer. Many enlisted families simply cannot survive on one income alone.
MYTH 5: We chose where we live. Choices in the military are few and far between, and that's especially true when it comes to where we're stationed. Service members receive something called PCS (permanent change of station) orders. That's right – orders, not suggestions or ideas. Tthat doesn't mean a service member can't request a particular duty station, but it doesn't mean the request will be honored, either. For many of us, moving to new places is exciting as well as stressful. What helps is that we often run into the same friends and faces over the years, and develop strong bonds with others in our community, which makes these blind moves a little less scary.
MYTH 6: Everyone who serves in the military is a hero. This is ultimately a very tough moniker to wear as a service member. The civilian community can be wonderfully supportive in their desire to show appreciation to the men and women in uniform, and while that's not a bad thing, sometimes it can feel uncomfortable for those who have served but do not feel heroic or brave. The reality is that many military members don't see themselves as heroes, and tend to feel that designation belongs with those who have fallen in the line of duty. While Hollywood has glamorized military service, the truth is that many service members see themselves as regular people who are just doing their jobs.
MYTH 7: Everything is cheaper on base. If you didn't already know, most military bases have their own grocery stores called "commissaries" and their own retail stores called "exchanges." While it is true that most food products bought at commissaries are a bit cheaper than similar products sold off-base, the Department of Defense is currently advocating price hikes that would eliminate most, if not all of those savings. Plus, the items available at many commissaries are limited, which means families still need to shop off-base for specialty food items or ethnic groceries. As for exchanges, the prices there are often on par with civilian department stores like Macy's or Sears – meaning little savings, despite convenience.
MYTH 8: Service members don't deploy that often. Deployments are a standard part of military service, although some people are able to avoid deploying for long stretches of time. For infantry battalions there are usually 14 months between deployments, with the opportunity to take a three-year break after two successive deployments are completed. However, this isn't always the case. My husband deployed to Iraq twice, with only five months between each 7-month deployment, and a friend's husband did four back-to-back deployments over a period of five years. Along with deployments are pre-deployment work-ups which include weeks, even months spent away from home training for the pending deployment ahead. In essence, our deploying service men and women are gone from home a lot.
MYTH 9: Military spouses have time to further their careers and educations. When you're moving every three years to a new destination — where you have no friends, no family, no connections, a child to raise, and a life to establish — it can be exceedingly difficult to find employment or start school. Many employers do not like hiring military spouses because they know they will likely have to move after a few years. Colleges can be difficult to transfer to, and credits in one school don't always amount to the same credits at a new school, making an education hard to complete. Often times, military spouses have very little to show for themselves because they have taken to raising their families and supporting their service member instead of fulfilling their own personal dreams. For those who do set upon the path to have their own careers or complete their education, it can be more difficult than civilians realize.