Army wives: finally an appreciated sector of military life

''If the Army had wanted a man to have a family, it would have issued him one.'' Many military wives can quote this well-known saying, often in jest but just as often with a wry look that indicates some truth behind the sentiment. Asked to move frequently, raise a family with a frequently absent father, live in homes of questionable comfort, deal with a new area of the US or a move overseas , and live far away from family, all for the sake of her husband's career - a woman may begin to feel, as one put it, like ''so much extra baggage.''

By most accounts, however, wives are becoming an increasingly appreciated sector of military life, and the military, along with the rest of society, is changing its attitude toward their responsibilities and roles.

''Formerly, families weren't 'authorized,' '' says John Gladden, the chief social worker and assistant director of Army Community Services at Fort Devens. He points out that, while only about 15 percent of Army men were married in the late 1960s, the figure has grown to about 60 percent today.

''We now have six programs to assist families,'' Mr. Gladden continues. ''ACS's reason for being is the recognition that we can keep soldiers in the field by helping families - they're important to his stability.''

The extent of ACS activities indicates a stronger awareness of the family's needs and its role in the Army. Programs range from relocation and financial planning assistance to child advocacy and day-care services.

The third Army Family Symposium, held in Washington, D.C., last fall and attended by 500 delegates, focused on a variety of issues concerning military families. Recommendations from participants included offering hot lines for families in trouble; examining the CHAMPUS program, under which the Army shared costs for services outside Army hospitals; giving six-month notice, whenever possible, for families who must relocate; establishing family support councils to provide family input on decisions that affect them; and emphasizing assignment policies that take into account requests based on specific family need. Some such programs already exist.

One area of significant change is the social obligations of a military wife. ''Not all women show up for the social functions anymore,'' observes Beth Sterns , whose husband, a first lieutenant currently stationed in California, has been in the military for about three years.

Sandy, whose husband, a colonel, has been in the Army 20 years, agrees. ''Back then, there were teas and coffees, and you worked in the thrift shop or volunteered for Red Cross. You felt that you had to do these things. If someone in my position had asked something of you, you didn't dare say no. But I'd rather have someone say no than be afraid and do something she really didn't like.''

Yet while the Army may be changing in its efforts to accommodate families better, there are many demands made by the life style that cannot be changed.

''The great part of the burden to maintain the unity and the family is on the wife,'' says Linda Phares, a Fort Devens ACS volunteer corps supervisor whose husband has been in the military 16 years. ''In our last duty station my husband was gone a year and a half at different times out of a three-year tour,'' she says. ''We had children with special-education needs, and it's difficult. He's just not there a lot of the time.''

Being together can be as challenging as being apart. ''It's a real adjustment when husbands leave and come back, especially when they come back,'' Mrs. Phares reflects. ''It's like a stranger walking in and disciplining the children and trying to fit into the patterns.''

Kaye Mooy, an advertising sales representative whose husband is a nurse anesthetist with the Army, concurs. ''With an extended tour, you have a year apart. We had a three- to five-month adjustment period to come back together as a family with a father and a mother and a child. So often, a child ignores the father, and the father has to give up the bachelor life. You get more independent too. My husband returned and asked, 'What happened?' I had been the stay-at-home wife, but I got my first job when he was away.''

Children are a major concern of military couples. Mrs. Mooy and her husband, in contemplating another military separation, debated the effect of uprooting a teen-ager - who has already attended seven schools - against the possibility of her remaining alone with him. They concluded that she would stay in the Northeast during his two-year tour in Hawaii.

''How do you measure the effect [of being apart] on your marriage, as to the effect on a child? The school system isn't good overseas, and I have a very good job here. So we've been through a where-do-you-go, what-do-you-say period. It's a major factor in rearing a family.''

John Morrison, chaplain with the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Devens, finds particular challenges in his area, since most of the men are away six to 10 months of the year. However, he says, the obstacles aren't such that they can't be overcome.

''The wives primarily run the family, and the husband has to find a place in the chain of command and share decisionmaking. But couples can work out a good balance where they have strong trust in each other's decisionmaking capacities, and don't try to undercut each other. There's complete trust.

''The dangerous part is where she gets so tied up with responsibilities that she won't let him in, and he just visits emotionally. Then you have to work with him to get him to reinvest himself in the family.''

He points out that the attitude on counseling has changed significantly, and the Army fully supports it.

''The soldier is smart who seeks help on his marriage - he's not weak or incompetent, nor is his wife. And the ones we counsel who stick with it usually have good results.''

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