Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Singlism in the Military: Discrimination Against Single Servicemen

Singlism.

It's so finely interwoven in the (often ugly, synthetic) fabric of our society, there's no telling where you will encounter it or how it will entrap you. At the hospital, where you can't see your best friend because she's not your wife. Before the co-op board, which can reject you because you don't have a husband. On the road, where you pay more to drive than your married neighbor does. At the office, where your paycheck is taxed for thousands more than your married coworker's. And now in Afghanistan, where you may be blown to bits while your buddies are snuggling at home with their spouses in their private military housing. No one will miss you, of course, because if you aren't married, everyone knows you aren't important to anyone.

It should surprise no one that a country which condones and encourages the inequities above would also discriminate against the singles who put their lives on the line to serve it. But it should disturb us. It disturbed me when a good friend of mine--let's call her Melissa--informed me that her cousin, Josh, a Naval Petty Officer Second Class, was about to be deployed for a year's tour in the Al Qaeda capital of the world, Afghanistan. Moreover, he was not going to be serving on a submarine, as usual, but on the ground. Among the suicide bombers and sundry militants.

See, it turns out that when the Army's manpower is running low, the Navy can pump in some fresh blood to be spilled by sending its sailors into ground combat zones. Somehow I don't think that's what Josh signed up for when he donned his first blue garrison cap. But now the Navy owns him, and they can send him wherever they like to do whatever they like, including missions formerly reserved for a completely different branch of the military.

At 24, Josh is still a young man, the son of a widowed single mom and older brother of two sisters. He is the only male in his nuclear family. Since I'm not using his real name, I think it's safe to tell you that he also struggles with a health problem that has interfered with his job sufficiently to require rehabilitative treatment in the past. On the surface, it appears that Josh might not be the best candidate to be sent into a potentially explosive service environment (no pun intended).

However, let's not forget that Josh is also single. He's not married and has no children. The Navy would surely insist that his marital status had nothing to do with how they singled him out to be dropped into the heart of danger. But, according to Josh, the other Naval candidates for the dubious privilege of honorary Army service were all married. As we all know here at Singletude, that means their lives are more important. It would be such a tragedy for a young war bride to lose her husband and have to remarry, but it's just par for the course for an already widowed, aging mom to lose her only son.

While no one can prove that Melissa's cousin was sacrificed because he is single, the armed forces have a longstanding history of favoritism to married couples, most clearly evident in the inequitable distribution of the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS), and Family Separation Allowance (FSA). The BAH, BAS, and FSA are untaxed monetary supplements, partly determined by marital status, which the armed forces pretend are not income to deflect criticism from civil rights activists appalled that single serviceman aren't receiving equal pay for equal work. However, single soldiers themselves have been quite vocal on the subject, complaining that they are denied privacy, autonomy, space, leisure, and even decent food by virtue of their inadequate compensation, which forces them to live in communal barracks while their married counterparts have their own houses on or off base. In addition to cramped, supervised quarters more suited to adolescents in reform school than hardworking adults serving our country, enlisted singles report that they are always on call and must endure the most undesirable, inconvenient duties because they can never leave the workplace. Furthermore, the FSA, which is financial compensation for the emotional hardship of prolonged separation from spouse and children, is a slap in the face to the young men and women in uniform who desperately miss parents, grandparents, siblings, nephews and nieces, cousins, unmarried romantic partners, and friends.

While reforms have ameliorated some of the inequality between married and single service members, a gulf still remains. Besides the aforementioned injustices, single servicemen are subjected to the same discriminatory policies that plague the private sector, including unequal compensation in the form of healthcare and death and disability benefits.

Perhaps in response to all these extra goodies, military personnel marry and have children earlier, on average, than the general population does. For example, the average member of the Army is 24 years old at the birth of his or her first child, an age at which most civilians aren't even married yet. Unfortunately, as marriage rates have soared, so have divorces. One wonders if some of those young officers are flocking to the altar just to get their own slice of marriage perk pie.

The U.S. armed forces are losing some of their best and brightest because enlisted singles are treated like frat house inductees in a never-ending hazing ritual. As they wise up to their status as second-class citizens, talented singles are abandoning the Army, Navy, and Air Force for corporate jobs that pay them for their skills, not their spouses. It's time for the Department of Defense to realize that the men and women who lay down their lives to protect millions of innocents are all worthy of the same respect, no matter who is waiting for them back home. And perhaps, if our government can lead the way in fairly apportioning benefits to singles, the private sector may be pressured to follow. Or at least one can dream.


Have you or has someone you know served in the U.S. armed forces while single? If so, did you (or he or she) experience any singlism, either of the kind mentioned here or of some other kind? What do you think the military could do to treat singles more equitably?


Fun Link of the Day


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14 comments:

Positively Present said...

Though I don't know anyone who has served in the military while single, I definitely agree that there is a stigmatization (if that's a word) of singles in general society. Pairs and even groups are much more excepted in the public eye then are single people. Just think about when you see someone alone at the movies or at a restaurant. The average person probably thinks this person is lonely or sad or waiting for someone.

Even though I cannot relately directly to this post, it was a great read. Thanks for posting it!

onely.org said...

Thanks Elsie for these links--the Army blog is interesting. I was partially raised in a military environment--but as part of a nuclear family. I definitely remember things like "married housing" versus "barracks", though. At the time, I thought it was normal and sensible. But I was TWELVE. The military administrators and our government to whom they answer--the people perpetuating this discriminatory system--I can only assume they are WAY OLDER THAN TWELVE. Scary.
--Christina

The Singlutionary said...

If you attend BYU in Utah, you have to live in BYU approved housing unless you are a graduate student or married. This provides the necessary pressure to make marriage look like a lollypop. I think that things like this are the ways we keep society "together" by pressuring people to couple.

Ugh.

Alan said...

I wonder if part of the problem is that the military is a government institution, and maybe it sees pay less like a salary and more like a welfare payment...ie varying with the number of dependents. Though come to think of it, other government services like the Post Office don't have that arrangement...

I suspect another part of the problem is that while the military is politically diverse among the enlisted and junior officers, the senior officer corps is very conservative. And I think the more conservative you are the more likely you are to support the existing system and oppose changes.

And finally, unlike most jobs you can't just quit the military. And quitting can be a powerful force for change: A hospital I inteviewed at has long had a reputation for having high turnover due to bad working conditions. In response, they've set up a long residency program for new nurses, so they won't feel as burned out and will stay longer.

onely.org said...

This is an excellent article, Elsie. Thanks for the resource. I have a friend who is married to an Army officer, and he has told stories about how he is able to leave work at a "reasonable" hour because he is married and has a "legitimate" reason to leave, whereas his single colleagues must work late.

It is totally unfair!

-- Lisa

Clever Elsie said...

Positively Present: I'm encouraged that more and more people recognize and are concerned about discrimination against singles. You're absolutely right that it's present in many facets of American social life. If you're interested in the topic, I highly recommend Singled Out by Dr. Bella DePaulo. It was a real eye opener!

Christina: Ah-ha! An insider's perspective! I know you were only 12, but I wonder if you were aware of any of your parents' single colleagues who might have expressed some dissatisfaction about their living arrangements or other unjust aspects of their compensation?

It is scary that our lawmakers seem to have had no compunctions about marginalizing single servicemen for so long, but it looks like they're slowly coming to their senses. However, as with every other entrenched form of singlism, these policies haven't changed rapidly or radically enough.

Singlutionary: That's a good example of singlism in academia. Brigham Young is a Christian university, so I suspect their policy has much to do with keeping an eye on all the young singles who might fall into "fornication" if left to their own devices. However, even secular institutions often give preferential treatment to married students when it comes to housing. For example, my college didn't allow underclassmen to have private rooms or on-campus apartments unless they were married. My understanding is that most colleges and universities reserve the most desirable housing for upperclassmen, graduates, and {drum roll} married students. Apparently, if you want to earn the perks of advanced standing, you should just get married! {eye roll}

Alan: I think your insights are right on the money.

And finally, unlike most jobs you can't just quit the military.That's true, but service members can still make their voices heard when it's time to reenlist. Some of the military personnel at the sites I linked to said that they had received tempting offers from the private sector and would likely accept when their terms were up. My understanding is that the armed forces would prefer to retain individuals they've already trained if possible. The threat of mass departures seems to have resulted in some revisions to the BAH and BAS, but a more extensive overhaul is needed.

Lisa: Wow, that is incredible! I know this goes on in the corporate world, too, but it's just so much more blatant when personnel are clearly segregated by marital status! I wonder if your friend's husband sees this as unfair or believes that it's his due since he has a family?

Anonymous said...

Great post. I don't know any first hand (second hand?) stories of singlism in the military, however, I have seen it implied in many instances. People I have known in different branches of the military, male and female, have seemed to see marriage as a necessity, and been more desperate to get it, far earlier than civilian peers. I knew guys right out of high school that got married as soon as they joined the military (mostly now divorced). I've seen people propose to their partner ridiculously quickly after meeting them. I have heard of relatives of friends who got married to people they barely knew, explicitly so they didn't have to live in the barracks.

I was once waiting for a delayed flight at an airport near an army base, and sitting next to two strangers who had struck up a long conversation. One was a middle aged civilian woman, the other one was an 18 or 19 year-old girl in uniform. The young girl told the older stranger all about how she was already divorced, she had found her (also military husband) in bed with *2* women, she was now looking for a new husband, but she has learned from her experience that marrying another soldier is a bad idea. All I could think was: this girl is like 18 and she's already gone through more marital strife than the 40+ woman next to her. This isn't right.

Clever Elsie said...

Anonymous: Thanks for sharing! It's tragic that so many service members feel rushed into marriages which then fail because they were too young or didn't choose their partners carefully enough. This just shows how important it is for all humans to have the dignity of some personal space and self-determination of their own private lives. Those basic rights shouldn't be dependent on marital status.

By the way, while I love thoughtful, intelligent comments like yours, I have to ask everyone to sign their comments with a name, initials, handle, or other form of identification. (See the Singletude Guidelines.) This is to protect against flames and spam, which your comment is obviously not, but I have to enforce it for everyone to be fair.

Nicky said...

Thanks for highlighting this, Elsie. For more on the discriminatory allotment of resources to soldiers, see http://www.unmarried.org/unmarried-in-the-military.html

Leslie Talbot said...

Hey, thanks for linking to my article! It really only scratches the surface of what I learned in my research - I was absolutely horrified by some of the emails I got from current and former military personnel (awful stories about singles having to sleep in hammocks on ships while married service members were free to live on shore, etc.) No wonder people in the military marry so young. Their lives are miserable otherwise.

Love the site, btw. I'm glad I found it.

Clever Elsie said...

Nicky: Welcome to Singletude, Nicky, and thank you very much for the link.

Leslie: Hi! So glad to have you here at Singletude! And thank you for providing great work to link to! There are so few writers out there publicizing these issues. I hope we can all put some pressure on our lawmakers by shedding light on these really unacceptable practices.

JLeigh said...

I know this is a little late but I stumbled upon this entry when I was looking for other single people who are tired of getting the short, dirty, end of the stick.
I am a staff sergeant in the Air Force and while I don't have it nearly as bad as my Army and Navy counterparts I still have some issues.
I do get to live in apartment off base that is rather nice, but I have a roommate because if I only lived on what the Air Force paid me I'd have to live in the low cost housing in the scarier parts of town. Or at least I would if I could qualify to get into them, which I don't. Because I get paid too much. So it's either a roommate or a roach motel.
I also joined the military "late" I grew up as a brat and milked that as long as I could but my benefits expired at 21 so I joined. Then, I lived in the "dorms" because I was single. Most of the time, I was in a suite where I shared a bathroom and kitchen with another person. I had to constantly worry about who they would put in the room with me, since I was over 21 and if I had an underage roommate I couldn't keep alcohol in my room or I'd get slapped with a "contributing" charge.
Then I had to deal with the jerks who thought Tuesday nights were perfect for a raucous party. I can't tell you how many times I had to wander around the building in my bathrobe pounding on doors to tell them to keep it down or I'd call the cops.
And the inspections and random people wandering in and out of my "private room" were something else altogether. I would come home and notice things had been moved around and I wasn't sure if I should call the cops or maintenance. For a while I thought about putting up a sign in sheet on my door so I would know where to start if some of my kind of expensive and easily concealed belongings came up missing.
There were also problems keeping the rooms secure. One of the dorms I lived in replaced our old fashioned key locks with new "more secure" keycard type locks. Except when they did there was a gap in the door frame wide enough that anyone could jimmy it with a butter knife. And of course we were forbidden from altering our living quarters (like adding a chain slide lock) to make them more safe. Way to go Air Force.
While most married members actually live in two income households and drive BMWs, Mercedes, and other luxury cars I hope my 14-year-old POS doesn't break down on the freeway.
I lucked out on my present assignment, all the work is pretty fairly distributed. At my last assignment I was constantly called back into work to fix a highly visible piece of equipment because the base commander was anal that way.
I also got called in to take photos at a dinner (I'm a photojournalist and PR rep.) that couldn't even be used for anything official. I was called something like a half hour after I got home from work in the middle of making my own dinner and I didn't even get fed at the event!
My last assignment was also in an area that gets a lot of snow and since I lived the closest to the base (because I couldn't afford to live further out) I was ALWAYS the one who got called to go into the office in a blizzard and update the website and phone line.
Or I got told the day before a long weekend that I would be escorting media in addition to working another day of the long weekend, in effect shortening my three day weekend to one day. And there was NO offer of a compensation day.
All of this was in addition to having to cover for the people who had to leave early to "pick up their kids/spouses" or "little Jimmy was sick" or whatever. Oh and the wonderful experience of being pulled aside by my civilian supervisor because he was "worried" that in all the three years I worked there he'd never even heard me talk about a possible love interest. This from a guy who'd been divorced twice. You'd think he was fishing for "Don't ask" material.
Sorry, it upsets me just to think about it.
Anyway that's my story. Thank you for letting me share it.

Clever Elsie said...

JLeigh: Hi! Welcome to the blog! Thank you so much for sharing your experience! (And it's never too late to comment on these posts.) As I read your story, I was horrified by the thankless way you've been treated and the utter lack of control you've had over your own living quarters. Lots of civilian singles face discrimination on the job, but it's so much worse in the military because of how much more influence it exerts over every facet of your life.

All I can say is please keep talking about it. Keep voicing your concerns and frustrations. Change is so painfully slow, but the only way it happens is by protesting the status quo. Otherwise, institutions with ingrained singlism, like the military, have no motivation to change.

When I was researching this post, I was encouraged by some of the modifications that had been made to help redress the inequities in BAH and BAS. Those are small steps, but they're evidence that the armed forces can be compelled to listen to servicemen when the complaints grow loud enough. If there are any channels for you and your single friends to petition for greater parity in compensation, work hours, and time off, I'd urge you to do so. It's not right that any one person or group of people should earn less for equal work or that they should bear greater responsibility because of where they live or their perceived commitments outside of work. Unpleasant and after-hours duties should be rotated without regard to marital status or living arrangements.

Thank you again for helping to make more people aware of how unfairly our single servicemen are treated. Those who are willing to risk their lives in battle should not also have to battle to be treated like human beings with the same rights as everyone else.

Billybifocals said...

I am in the Navy, and I am single. I am in a division where I am the ONLY single guy. I am thirty and i have never been married. But we have 18 and 19 year olds married. Most of these people have children. As of last week, two of guys directly senior to me are getting divorced and we deploy in less than two weeks. They are given special liberty on top of their leave to handle this. Also, there is another in my division who was given extended leave to see his wife and everyone else was given leave prior to deployment and yet, I was not given any. I feel I should be given more time to deal with getting ready to deploy because i am leaving my things behind. I have chosen to be single and i have chosen to not have children. I am mission ready, and i feel as if i am punished because of it.