While the war in Iraq drags on, we usually hear about the worn morale of soldiers returning for repeated tours. But little attention is paid to the sacrifices their wives (and sometimes their husbands, of course, though in far fewer numbers) make -- not just in suffering through teary phone calls, enduring holidays alone, caring for kids as single parents, maintaining households or jobs and making due with mediocre housing and tight budgets, but in the work they contribute to the cause. An informative Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times points out that almost 30 percent of Army wives formally volunteer.
"We run quality-of-life programs and serve on boards that take hours of dedication. We are the liaison between the commander and the soldiers' families, we refer people to various resources like the Red Cross and military-sponsored programs, we raise money to support family programs and in our informal roles, we are on call 24 hours a day to help families deal with divorce, child abuse, suicide and bereavement. Our work is expected, underappreciated and often goes unnoticed," writes Tanya Biank, author of "Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives."
She estimates that in 2005, these volunteers dedicated more than 630,000 hours of service to the Army, which is valued at more than $11 million. And the wives are understandably exhausted. Biank tells the story of a friend who is a mother of two small children and whose husband has been deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, where he is serving for a year. She leads a family readiness groups, and her job is to sustain morale for 50 wives and their children. "I think that at times families forget that I am just a volunteer," Biank quotes her friend as saying.
Biank makes the important point that unhappy wives don't inspire spouses to stay in the service. And because last year the Army missed its recruitment goal for the first time in six years, someone needs to pay attention. "If families are cared for and content, soldiers focus on their mission and are more likely to continue serving," she writes.
So how can the Army do that? Stop depending so much on volunteers, Biank argues. The military needs to pay for what are known as "family readiness group assistants" to deal with all the paperwork, phone calls, phone rosters and organizing meetings, she writes. And so-called family life consultants, who look for signs of stress and make counseling referrals, could help, too.
And she makes an excellent suggestion -- namely, that brigades could pair with civilian volunteers, who could donate hours for fundraising or babysitting. Maybe a community group could sponsor a children's evening play hour so these women could get a manicure or have a damn glass of wine or two. They desperately need our support, and it's a nice gesture to soldiers, who don't need to think that all hell is breaking loose at home while they're overseas, helpless to fix anything. In the meantime, the Army should stop exploiting some of our most stressed-out and vulnerable military moms for office work that could be done by others.