On-Base Living Expands the Military-Civilian Divide

A recent news article says on-base living is a big contributor to the military civilian divide. What do you think?

The availability of on-base housing and all the wonderful perks of living within the confines of the base gates is making the military-civilian divide worse.

That, at least, is what a recent story from the LA Times times suggests. That paper is running a mostly excellent series examining the military-civilian divide, its symptoms, contributing problems and, hopefully, solutions. Some of the stories hit too close to home — I won’t lie to you, I cried. Some of the stories have that breathless window-into-our-strange-lives tone that, ironically, perfectly illustrates the divide they are highlighting. But a major publication taking the time and attention to highlight for the public the struggles of the military is always a good thing in my book — and I am grateful.

Still, this latest installment examining life behind the gates left me wondering if they hit the nail on the head or missed the mark completely.

A recent news article says on-base living is a big contributor to the military civilian divide. What do you think?



The story takes a look at whether the “sheltered, subsidized lifestyle on this heavily guarded mega-base” of Camp Pendleton, California and other bases like it contribute to the divide problem.

My first reaction to this story is that choosing to highlight Camp Pendleton as an example of on-base problems is simply not fair. Precious few bases boast the amenities and perks of the Pendleton base paradise. Its own coastline? Come on.

And while the story did use my own lovely – ahem – home of Fort Campbell, Kentucky as another example of a place with a ridiculously large military population centered around a post, they didn’t actually come here. Had they bothered to check out our crusty family gym (which you have to pay to use) or the ancient, spider infested housing that some families call home, they may not have been so impressed. (“Just found two brown recluse spiders in my house after a deep clean. Is there a spray I can use for those spiders? Does maintenance cover it? I’m so terrified,” a woman posted to a local spouse page recently. “Girl get used to it, they are all over,” was the first reply. Sweet Moses.)

The story did mention that most people do not live on base — at least two-thirds of military families live in off-base housing according to Defense Department statistics. But it didn’t say that on-base privatized housing companies are having so much trouble filling spots that many bases have opened their gates to non-military occupants. Some bases are allowing non-military affiliated civilians to come in as renters. Others have limited it to retirees, gold star families and civilian government workers. Still more housing companies are offering renting specials out of desperation. Here at Fort Campbell, for example, if you choose to move on base (and agree to sign a one-year lease that can only be broken in the case of military orders) you can get your first month (and bonus spiders!) free.

In short: living on base doesn’t create the huge divide a place like Pendleton might make it seem.

The problem they did identify in the story that is real is something that there is no reasonable way to get away from: the base concept itself. Military bases are often isolated, they point out. They are epicenters for large populations of military families, meaning that military families are not spread throughout civilian communities across the nation where our burdens can be shared by non-military families.

All of those things are true. But the problem here is that there is no good solution. What can be done? More bases in busier civilian areas? That seems illogical in an era of downsizing. Not stationing military personnel at bases and instead requiring them to travel for training? I think not. Or maybe the World War II model is where it’s at — the men go off to train and to war, and the families stay where they were to start with. That seems more harmful, too.

Do you think on-base living is a big contributor to the military-civilian divide? Or is it just the base concept in general? And what is the solution? Tell me in the comments.


Photo courtesy U.S. Marine Corps.

About the Author

Amy Bushatz
Amy is the editor in chief of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com where she is the managing editor of spouse and family content. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on CNN.com, NPR, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC and BBC as well as in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.
  • Guest

    No “one” thing is responsible for the divide. The divide is there because the vast majority of Americans go months if not years without seeing or knowingly speaking with a member of the military in their home town. It doesn’t mean, as mil members would believe, that we’re “that awesome,” so far above others that we are our own category of human. It also does not mean, as some civilians would believe, that military service is only for those who couldn’t make their way in the civilian sector. It’s an occupational choice. That choice centers around work in certain areas of the country and world. If you do not happen to live in one of those areas, you may only see a service member at the airport. If that is the case, you likely will simply not know about the every day things in his or her life. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they have no way of knowing. Same from the military side. If you’re never away from the community surrounding your base, you may have no idea what life is like for most civilians who are not military dependents. It might help both sides to realize that certain benefits or difficulties are part of association with a job, they don’t define a person’s life.

  • zedvector

    World War II Model, families stay put & embedded in their current community/situation, works well during a draft. In an all volunteer military, the divide is unavoidable because the majority of US Citizens have no concerns their loved ones may be drafted to serve. If they did, maybe the the divide would not be an issue because we would all be in this together. Having said that, I know no current service members that would want to serve alongside a reluctant draftee. I also know few spouses that enjoy explaining their lives to well meaning civilians, especially those who see the grass on this side so much greener.

  • dan barrett

    What’s the problem with this “divide”? When I was an Army brat growing up I loved living on post and my brat friends and I all thought we were superior to the civilians we had to put up with off the Post. And when we were living off-post we couldn’t wait for our dads to get post housing. What you’re describing re on-post housing at Fort Campbell sound like a nightmare. What happened?

    • Victor

      Superior? That’s laughable. Those civilians paid taxes to furnish your lifestyle.

      This divide is exactly why we need to let civilians rent houses on post. We pay for them, after all.

      I’m glad you had a nice childhood on my dime.

  • petecarter

    I’ll say something radical: the so-called military-civilian divide is an illusion made up by those who claim it exists. I had 7 years of AD and 22 yrs Active Reserve, have been retired Air Force for 13 yrs (and 10 of that was living on an isolated Army Post, Dugway PG, as a civilian), and I have never seen or experienced what might be called a “divide”, with the exception of the Vietnam war debacle and of course the physical separation. The overwhelming public majority appreciates what the military does, at least since 9/11, and I see it all the time when someone in uniform or a retiree with a telling ballcap or shirt is approached by a stranger to thank them for their service. If someone strongly disagrees, I’d love to see it posted.

    • Guest

      Civilian support does not mean there isn’t a “divide.” The “divide” doesn’t necessarily mean civilians dislike us, simply that they have no basis for understanding the particulars of life as a member of the military, and often vice versa. I recently saw a post in this area from a military member who honestly thought that civilians could just take “unpaid vacation” for a long time, come back, and still have a job because the employer wasn’t paying the employee. That’s not how it works, of course. Being civilian doesn’t mean you can make any decisions you want and still have a livelihood. The misunderstanding exists because the military member has not been exposed to much life outside the military.

    • Victor

      Having been on both sides of the divide, I assure you it exists. Like I stated in my comment, it exists because some military personnel create it. Whether it’s the sailor who makes everyone wait in line behind him so he gets a 5% discount to the soldier who insists on hitting on our wives despite the fact that they clearly are not interested in military men.

      Yes, the divide is there.

  • mogul264

    Back in the late ’50s, I was stationed at China Lake Naval Air Station, on the Naval Ordnance Test Station isolated in the middle of the Mojave Desert of California. Immediately outside is the town of Ridgecrest, primarily supporting employees and military on the base. I applied for base housing and was put onto a waiting list. During the 5 month wait (I was just an E-3!), I was allowed to occupy substandard quarters (pre-fabs built during WW2, not yet torn down), paying for them less than my full Basic Allotment for Quarters. Talking with a civilian employee, I found HE was also living on base (at that time, part of his job perks, I guess). No big deal, UNTIL I found he owned THREE houses in town, which he rented TO THE MILITARY! I was disgusted, but powerless to do anything about it. In THAT case, I felt there was TOO much ‘closeness’ between the civilian and military! Just my 2 cents!

  • Netta

    I’m an Army Brat. We lived on Base and we lived off Base. I have more memories of living off Base than I do on Base. I had good Civilian Friends. Until Dad retired in 1963. After that, I never really fit in. I wasn’t a Civilian. I was and am and will always be an Army Brat. I don’t know if that fits the “divide” definition. But that’s life for me.

  • Tyson

    I am retired Navy (2003). Our youngest son was born at a Navy Hospital. We lived both on-base and off-base stateside and 9 1/2 years overseas. For us the divide did not and has not came from where we lived-those places were always great-not perfect, and usually part of “the adventure” my recruiter promised. The difference came from the overall military versus civilian lifestyles – structure, organization, chain of command, common sense, and responsibility that is not found in a large percentage of the civilian world! Even now, 12 years after MY retirement, our employed, college-graduate son, is frustrated by these things in the civilian world. Soooooo, the difference is NOT housing!

    • Nanny74

      I grew up on USAF bases and when I married an USAF fella, we lived on base more than we lived off base. Personally, I loved it, as did my kids. My hubby retired in 2000, and I STILL am having trouble adjusting! I do not, nor do I think I ever will, like civilian life. The structure, common sense, etc that you mentioned simply does not exist. At least not where we live. There is also a fear that I never felt when living on base. I knew I could leave my doors unlocked and no one would enter my house. My kids could play outside without the fear of someone coming along and snatching them. Neighbors communicated each and every single day. Our kids had activities galore! Something that is also non existent where we live. I am sooooo glad my kids were grown by the time hubby retired! I would have kept such a tight leash on my girl that it’s scary! Were it not for our involvement in the American Legion, it’s programs and the comradeship afforded us due to being with Veterans and their family members, I’d go absolutely bonkers! If there is some sort of ‘divide’, then I say fine! At lease we felt secure, safe, and had friendships that have lasted throughout the years. I could go on and on and on, but will finish with saying that if I could go back in time, I’d certainly do it. The civilian lifestyle sucks big time!!!

  • Vet/Spouse/Bitch

    Almost every post and base is now accepting DOD civilians, Gold Star families, retirees, and sometimes even non-Military affiliated civilians that can pass a background check into Family housing.

    Not all; but many are.

    Privatized housing is charging THEM market prices, considerably less than BAH. Military Families are eschewing the butt/pocketbook reaming rent on post, plus paying a portion of utilities, and living off post.

    Let’s not even think of the final clearing trauma and the bookoo bucks housing charges when some poor family “damages” .89 cent per square foot carpet and housing charges them $28.30 per sq yard to replace it. (Thanks, Military Leadership, for allowing that to occur! You REALLY GOT OUR BACKS!!)

    Nice try, civilian newspaper with journos who know NOTHING of the reality of Military Life*.

    *results may vary

    also, I was speaking of the LA Times, as the clueless journos.

    • Victor

      And what’s wrong with civilians taking advantage of on post housing? Yes, we don’t pay market price, but we also don’t get bah.
      If spouses get to live on post, it’s only fair that DOD civilians get too as well.

  • Victor

    The divide comes from having to wait in line at the hardware store while a service member yells at clerk because they can’t afford to dole out military discounts to an entire base.

    The divide exists when I am trying to enjoy lunch and the next table over I hear the f bomb being dropped by marines every other second.

    The divide exists because some military members act as though they are superior, forgetting who pays thier salary.

    Yes, the divide exists.

    • jojo613

      You forget that most military members pay taxes as well.

      As far as the language is concerned– tell them to stop swearing. If they continue to swear, or become disrespectful, report it to the manager. I have gotten people kicked out for swearing.

      As far as I can see from your posts you have something against military personnel. When you go out expecting people to behave negatively, people will live up or down to your expectations. It’s simple addition– a negative number added to another negative number equals a negative number– same thing with human nature– you can’t go into a negative situation with a negative attitude, as you will just make the negative situation worse. Instead inject some positiveness into it, and you will be surprised that often you can diffuse the situation.

      • Victor

        I am prior service and currently a contractor, so I can assure you that I am not anti military. Yes, military pays taxes, but that money is already taxed to begin with so that argument falls on itself.

        I am just saying that opening on post housing to civilians is an excellent way to take down the divide. Civilians work on post as well, so maybe we should be able to live on post as well.

  • Christina

    I am shocked by the cpmments I am reading. I am a spouse of a veteran and DOD civilian for almost 10 years. I have been on both sides. I love the military and I love the civilian side of things too. I could not see myself working anywhere other than a military base. I think it is a great idea , if the civilians are going to pay rent. I know I spend more time on base for work and school than I do off. So if I had the opportunity I would rent to live on base. The money I make would be going right back to the community where I spend most of my time, where my children grew up… I don’t understand the hateful comments … We as civilians are part of the military family, so less not assume we nothing about the military life … I know all too well so doess my wounded vet and my children who sacrificed there dad !!!!!!!!!!