YDU: Is a Spouse Military or Civilian?

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Even after 22 years of marriage to an Army infantry guy, one of our Facebook readers is still little confused over the military or civilian thing.  She wants to know: If you marry someone in the military, are you military, too? Or are you still a civilian?

This has come up more and more over the last few years. When you marry someone in the military you become a military family and you are no longer a civilian family. Does the wife serve? No. But does the wife make sacrifices that non-military spouses don’t? Yes.  So my question is this… what word would you use to define a person married to someone in the military? A military spouse? Or a military family? A civilian spouse?  Or a civilian family?

I think this lady has hit on something there. Any time a spouse implies on SpouseBuzz or Facebook that he or she also serves, plenty of our readers are there to point out that the spouse is NOT in the military. You are a civilian!

Any time a blog implies that the military might curtail a spouse’s actions (like hoping you will wear panties under your dress at the Birthday Ball), spouses and partners and MilSos are quick to point out they do NOT work for the military.

Others can’t wait to zoom in on the fact that you are a reflection of your servicemember at a work related event. So you are military!

No, I’m a civilian! But then again I’m military! A civilian! No, no, I’m attached to the military!

Any spouse who gets on that jag ends up like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. And that ain’t pretty. Unless, of course, you have Faye’s cheekbones. Which I don’t.

Personally, I always think of myself as military. I was born into an Air Force family. I married a Navy guy at 21– then moved 16 times and kept our family going through eight deployments. My son joined the Army. My entire career, in fact, has been centered on the military.

Yet compared to the folks who laced into their boots today for their very first hour of basic training, I am not military. I never took the oath.  I never wore the uniform. I never did one minute of patrol or even guarded an office building for practice. No one will ever, ever ask me to pick up a weapon and defend my country.

If that is the test of military or civilian, then certainly I’m civilian.

But I don’t feel like a civilian. I feel like I am part of the military.

Sociologists say that there is a reason for that. A “military” family is not defined solely by having someone in uniform in the clan. A “military” family is marked by a constellation of five factors:  frequent absence of the service member, PCS moves, international dwelling, risk of injury or death of the service member, and behavioral constraints.

According to them, the more of those five factors you have, the more like your family is to define itself as “military.” Which may be why we see so many younger spouses define the military as a job their servicemember does instead of something they themselves are a part of.

Yet I think it is a lot more than that. Maybe “military” can also be something you become just by living close to it — like considering yourself a Virginian even though you were born in Arizona.

I don’t know. I guess those sociologist would settle the question of whether we spouses are military or civilian by referring to us as “civilian spouses of military members.” But that isn’t the whole truth.

Because somehow over time the military has seeped into my bloodstream, performed its cell division, planted itself in my bone structure.  I am military.

No matter what you call me.

About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com. Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at JaceyEckhart.net.
  • Guest

    I am a civilian married to someone that serves. I can’t use an LES for taxes or registration unless it’s in my husband’s name. I support him and that was my choice! When I’m on base I’m no one unless I have his name SS# or identification that relates me to him. I didn’t earn nor do I wear his rank. In the civilian world are you a doctor because your spouse is even though you were with him through med school/residency and moved for a job with him/her? Same question, But you respect the customs and norms of each situation because hopefully your mother/father wasn’t an animal and you were not raised in a barn.

  • Jennifer Echevarria

    As a spouse, my entire life revolves around the Military. My children’s lives revolve around the Military. Am I a Servicemember? No. Am I “military”? Yes, in the broader sense of the word. I don’t wear my husband’s rank, I don’t “serve” the way that he does, but I am a member of the military community as a whole.

    • AOK

      With all due respect, I do not think military spouse is military. Yes, spouses are part of the community, you put up with a lot more than some of the other civilian spouse do. You are there for us when we are going through the toughest of times. However, its like saying you are a policeman just because your husband is a police officer. They sacrifice just as much, but does that mean the wife can call her self a police? No. Does it mean that Michelle Obama can run the office just because Barack Obama is the president? No. Does that mean the NFL football coach can go in the field and run as quarterback just because the key player got injured? No. A coach is a coach, not the player. The wife of the president is 1st lady, not the president. The wife of the police officer is a civilian, not a police officer. Spouses CHOOSE to be with us military members, CHOSE the lifestyle of being with our crazy ways. We thank you for it, we appreciate it, and we love you for it, but it is no wear near fair to consider yourselves military.

  • TheotherMel

    I am so sick of this question. Why does Spouse Buzz keep asking this one (in many different forms). I am a military dependent. I am not a service member.

    • jacey_eckhart

      We keep asking it because no matter what we do it keeps coming up. I think it is one of those things people need to sort out–sometimes with help from other people.

    • Anne

      I agree. Thank you!

  • mel

    This question is still being asked because some spouses have blurred the distinction between servicemember and spouse. Some expect special treatment because of who their spouse is. Some believe they are entitled because they “serve” too. Some expect the military to accommodate the needs of the family. Some lose sight of the fact that mission accomplishment and troop welfare is the priority. I believe, at some point in the past, someone came to the conclusion that if a servicemember’s family is taken care of then the servicemember can give 100% to their job. So, various benefits and programs were developed to help the families become basically more self-sufficient within the military community. These programs and added benefits are not rights but things that should be appreciated and not taken for granted.

    • mel

      As spouses, we do not have an agreement with the government, our agreement is with our servicemembers. The military doesn’t have to do anything for us, but in the interest of troop morale they have acknowledged us. In terms of believing that we also serve, my feeling is that it diminishes the sacrifices our servicemembers make every day. I do not serve our country, I support my husband. When I see a spouse expecting special treatment because of who she is married to I always wonder what she’ll do when her husband is no longer in and they are back in the civilian community where no one really cares what rank her husband was when he separated from the military. Spouses need to keep things in perspective so that confusion about who they are will not be an issue.

      • PS1 RETIRED

        This reminds of another issue I hear about and see alot, the topis is “Vets”. That issue is this: Why do “vets” that are not in any shape or form disabled think that they are entitled to the same things as an Active Duty/Reserve member and a retiree. I hear all the time about a vet that was in the military for 4 years(or 6 or 8 or 10), did their enlistment/reenlistment then got out, and they ask “why can’t I use the exchange commissary, I’m a vet”. These people don’t know the difference between the two.

        Just like this civilian or military spouse thing.

        I was active duty and so was my husband – we meet in the military, got married, had 3 kids, he retired first with a PDRL of 70% with 18 1/2 years active service, I then retired. I never once even thought about what other spouses were or weren’t. They were simply spouses.

  • 2433FO

    What a person “thinks” and is “true” are two different things on occasion. A person is not a service member unless they took the oath and enlisted or took a commission. A service members family is apart of the extended military family just like any other employer. To say that family members serve is a little off mark. There are many civilian jobs in this world that a person will be away from home for long periods risking life and limb. I would assume there families are probably just as worried as a service members family. I again ask the question, why do people always look for some “special” group to put themselves into? I say to heck with it all and just live your life to best you can and not worry about all that extra stuff.

  • jes

    The term I hate most that is used for what we are is dependant. I am a civilian who has married a man in uniform. I am not dependant on my husband. I think everyone wants to be defined as something or feel they are entitled to things because of who we chose to marry. Being military for some makes them feel important. Yes I am living the “military lifestyle” as some say, but it is not the definition of who I am or what my family is. We do face challenges that others may not face but that is life and we pick ourselves up and continue on.

    • guest

      OMG I TOTALLY agree with you. I am no ones “dependent” and I for sure am not military, I am a civilian, one that is fully capable of taking care of herself.

  • sabrinacking

    I think another way we could answer this is how we are treated in the communities surrounding military installations…especially regarding employment. It’s not entirely different from being interracial, as I am. People’s perception of what you are and what “that” means largely affects your life, employment opportunities etc. If I had a dollar for every time I heard: this position isn’t suitable for a military spouse we need someone who isn’t transient and will have longevity..I’d never have to work again.
    I understand female service members getting angry, we didn’t earn the right they have to be considered military. But here’s another point. I couldn’t join the service because I have 2 congenital birth defects from my Dads exposure to Agent Orange…military spouses and kids…are their own species.

    • Amanda

      I don’t want to sound callous, but the desire to join doesn’t make you a military member any more than marrying a servicemember does. There are people all over the US who wanted to serve and were turned away for all kinds of reasons. They aren’t military members either. I know this sounds harsh because it’s the internet. I don’t mean it snarky. It’s just how I see it.

      • sabrinacking

        I actually agree with you. What I am saying is, military brats and spouses exist as some sort of weird hybrid civilian. We have lives which are not only directly touched by the experience of war, but live inside the culture of the military. We are perceived by those outside as military…just try to get a job as a spouse near a military installation. And our own worldviews are shaped by not only how we percieve the world because of our proximity to the military, but also because of how the world perceives us. As I said, its not unlike being interracial. If you LOOK other than white, your experience is not going to be white, and people will in fact, treat you regarding to their perception of you as “other than” white. It is almost identical for military kids or military spouses in the communities outside military installations.

  • Michele

    I asked my husband this question not long ago. He sat back and thought about it for awhile and then told me he might feel different if I worked outside the military, but as far as he was concerned and from the way the other married soldiers in his unit expressed it, I am military. I hold a crucial support position in our military life. The nature of the military is not nine to five, it’s not until the shift ends, it’s all day, everyday, period. Even leave can be canceled, while we are on it. It isn’t civilian. Heck, I wasn’t going to be part of my husbands promotion ceremony, just happily there to see him succeed. No one would let me, point blank every soldier, single and married alike in our unit insisted I participate because quote ” this is as much your promotion as his” I argued that He did it on his own, not even he would let that stand. I am not a soldier, my sacrifice is different, but until we separate from the military, my life is just as closely wrapped up in the military as his. If they see it that way, I see no reason to argue. I don’t want my own career, I love being at home cooking, cleaning, raising. It makes me happy, makes my husband happy. He is the soldier, the bread winner, the protector, I am the caretaker, we together, our family, is military. We are a military family, that last phrase alone says it all for me. Stop tearing apart what it means to be family, everyone has a job, a role. Not one more important than the other, just different. My husband is a military service member, we have a military family, I am a military spouse, military dependent, if I can use all these terms that specify military then why on earth is it not okay to identify as military?

    • Amanda

      Because some women (and I say that instead of ‘spouse’ because I have yet to see a man do it) take it much, much further than what you have stated here. There are some who equate their status to their husband’s fully and completely. You said right there in the middle, “I am not a soldier, my sacrifice is different”. The fact that you acknowledge that is really important.

    • Anne

      Thank you for your humble honesty….as much as I like how much military spouse are there for us military members, and how much sacrifice you put in for us and put up with us, thank you for admitting that military spouse is a military spouse.

  • Jessi

    Our brown Military ID card as a dependent spouse, at the back it says, CIVILIAN YES.

  • Rosalee

    She is a military dependent

  • Anne

    I agree…I am in the military, military spouse is just that, NOT a military member. Spouses don’t carry guns, don’t fight in war, don’t deploy/sweat/carry 45-90 lbs packs in the heat/cold, don’t have ranks, don’t stand 24-48 hr shifts. Spouses are important part of military’s life, of course we love you. You are there for us when we need, when we go through stress or depression…. but please, stop considering yourselves military because spouse’s are not. You do more than civilian spouses do, yes. But it’s like saying you’ve lived in a rental home for years therefor its yours. No, its not. Its forever a rented unless you buy it from the owner. It will never be yours no matter how many years you lived there, no matter how much time and effort you put into making the home look good. Unless you buy the home, then its yours. Unless you go into boot camp and sign a contract, then your military.