Janice Charles

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–Kristen Fair was a new Army wife two years ago when her husband, a Black Hawk helicopter pildot, was assigned to Fort Drum in rugged upstate New York’s “North Country” region.

If the nation goes to war, her husband and many of the other 5,250 married soldiers stationed here will be among the first to go. They will leave behind an equal number of spouses, the vast majority of whom are women who married a man and found themselves wedded to a military life.

Fair, who had earned a six-figure salary as an executive recruiter in Manhattan before marrying, is now program director for Operation READY (Resources for Education about Deployment and You), an Army organization that helps Fort Drum families deal with key members who regularly go away for months at a time, often to perform highly dangerous assignments. The job pays less than $30,000 a year.

Rena Tumbleson, who entered Army life when she married her high school sweetheart almost 20 years ago, heads Fort Drum’s Army Family Team Building, which helps families adapt to Army life. Like Fair, she earns less than $30,000 annually for her Army job.

But as a company commander’s wife, Tumbleson is also expected to voluntarily head the “Family Readiness Group” for her husband’s battalion. These groups provide support services for spouses and children during the time the troops are away.

“That’s a job in itself,” Tumbleson said. “But it’s a job that I love.”

Fort Drum is headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division–the Army’s most frequently deployed unit, and sure to be on the forefront of a war with Iraq. The 100,000-acre installation is a small city, with 2,250 Army families in residence and another 3,000 in surrounding communities.

Army wives face the difficulty of being quasi-members of the Army, with significant rewards and many risks. They may experience loneliness, poverty, lack of privacy, routine upheavals and a presence of the military so strong it is almost a third partner in the marriage. All with little recognition and few tangible benefits.

At Fort Drum, about 30 miles South of Canada, the first adjustment is to the weather. Furious winter storms descend with little warning.

Army wives–especially officers’ wives–quickly learn to embrace their expected contribution to Army life. Up until 1985, an Army wife’s conduct counted in her husband’s job review. While that practice has stopped, the contribution of a soldier’s spouse is still a key element in determining whether a soldier will have a successful Army career.

In fact, Army wives have evolved into a volunteer or low-paid military workforce that saves the Army millions of dollars a year.

“The women who are wives have always had functions in the military, and one of these functions was volunteer work,” said Linda Grant De Pauw, a former Army wife and executive director of the Minerva Center, Inc., a research and education institute on women in the military. “What this is, is unpaid labor.”

At the same time, many Army wives put their own professional lives on hold.

“It is very difficult to be a military spouse,” said Mary Perrine, whose husband is a warrant officer at Fort Drum. “I have a bachelor’s degree in economics and my husband’s been active duty for 17 years, and I’ve never really been able to pursue my career.”

Accessing Social Services Can Be Challenging

Perrine’s husband has been assigned twice to Fort Bragg, N.C. Last month, the Army released a report that attributed five domestic violence killings among Army families at Fort Bragg in the summer of 2002 to the stresses of deployment. While that situation was extraordinary, intense clashes when spouses return are common.

“You get used to doing things your own way and the other spouse comes back and sees it the way they left it,” Perrine explained.

Fort Drum families may turn to private or non-military social service agencies for assistance, creating a complex relationship between the civilian and military worlds. Many civilian agencies are reluctant to criticize Fort Drum’s administration–which claims to pump more than $400 million a year into region–because they fear the base will be targeted for closure.

The Victims Assistance Center of Jefferson County, Inc.–the only private agency in the region providing domestic violence services–opened an office at Fort Drum in 1999. Because Army families don’t always have cars, agency officials thought they could reach more women by being at Fort Drum, said Elaina Marra-Hedrick, executive director of the Victims Assistance Center.

But in a departure from its usual confidentiality policy, the Victims Assistance Center agreed to give Army social workers any domestic violence complaints filed at its Fort Drum office, a condition of being allowed to operate there. Clients who use the Fort Drum office are told before disclosing information that it will be given to Army officials. But, an Army spouse who can get to any other office of Victims Assistance Center is granted complete confidentiality.

Once a report is made to Army social workers, decisions in the case are driven by the Army. A company commander can order a soldier to separate from his family while the matter is being investigated. Cases can also be handled by the Army’s judicial system.

“If you have a marital problem at McDonald’s, you don’t go to the manager at McDonald’s,” said Maj. Bryan Hilferty, the Fort Drum spokesman. “We provide more programs than any other organization in the world for families.” Hilferty, a former company commander, says Army intervention can help a wife, especially in a male culture where traditional concepts of the husband’s role abound.

“We do have controlling husbands–the guy who deploys and takes the checkbook and the ID card with him. We don’t accept that, though,” Hilferty said.

Poverty Also Restricts Women’s Options

However, if a battered spouse is unwilling to have the Army take over her complaint, she has little financial ability to seek assistance elsewhere. The basic pay for a new soldier is $1,022.70 a month; that goes up to $1,105.50 after four months. Allowances for food, clothing and housing can lower monthly living expenses, but many young Army families still struggle. A number of them receive food stamps, although the exact count is unknown because recipients’ occupations aren’t tracked.

“The community is really poor,” said Keary Renner, whose husband is at Fort Drum. “I think everybody when they start out, no matter what post they’re at, struggles.”

Renner said her family was better off than many because she has a job at a military supply store.

Others are less fortunate. The wife of one young soldier said she and her husband find it difficult to support their two children on the husband’s monthly take-home pay of about $1,500, even with allowances and benefits.

“It is very hard,” said the wife, who asked that her name not be used. She says she now receives milk, eggs, cheese and cereal from a federal nutritional program called Women, Infants and Children and adds that she is “actually getting ready to apply for food stamps. It’s kind of funny when we have to get help from our government, when we are helping the government with our sacrifices and our lives.”

In Jefferson County, where Fort Drum is located, Army families form almost half the nutritional program’s beneficiaries.

When the soldiers ship out, hundreds of the program’s military beneficiaries move back to their parents’ homes in other states, said Janice Charles of the children’s center in Watertown, which administers the program. The center tries to connect these women with new services, but it is unknown how many continue to receive the food after moving. If they return, they must go through the same application procedures they did the first time.

“It’s unsettling to the staff, but we’ve grown used to it, and we expect it,” Charles said. Still, she credits the Army with improving its outreach to young, isolated families. Others working with young Army families at Fort Drum agreed with her.

“We–the base and the community–are doing a better job of making people feel at home here, and giving them the support systems they need to do that well,” said Peter Schmitt, executive director of the Watertown Family YMCA, which works with Army families in many ways, ranging from recreation to daycare.

“We’re trying really hard,” added Rena Tumbleson, the officer’s wife who teaches Army families about military life. “That’s one of the biggest goals I have for this program, is to pull those young spouses in.”

Darryl McGrath is a writer in Albany, N.Y., who has reported often about Fort Drum since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

For more information:

The Minerva Center, Inc.:

ArmyLINK–The official site of Army Public Affairs:
“Bragg officials react to spousal homicides”:

Fort Drum: