Each year, Military.com hosts a Spouse Summit that gives military spouses a chance to connect with others in their same situation and hear from experts on a variety of topics important to them.
This year’s summit, held April 11-12 in Vienna, Va., offered an agenda that included sessions on family mental health, children of military families, spouse employment, and transition from military to civilian life. The event’s keynote speaker was Sal Giunta, a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley on Oct. 25, 2007.
Throughout the course of the two-day summit, several key points emerged from the speakers, sessions and informal discussions. For example, many participants reported it was very difficult to obtain spouse contact information from a command. If military leadership doesn’t collect information on the wives and husbands of their own servicemembers, networking and outreach become almost impossible.
Jacey Eckhart, director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com, spoke with The American Legion about the Spouse Summit and answered some concerns that military spouses often have when making the transition to civilian life.
Q: Why does Military.com host a spouse summit?
A: At Military.com, we really believe in online support for military spouses. It goes with you wherever you go, it’s not dependent on time. We know from our numbers that people are checking in with us at two o’clock and three o’clock in the morning. So we’re proud to be there for that. But that isn’t enough for military spouses. We need to see each other face to face. When we actually get support, it’s from people that you know. The research says that the difference between a good deployment and a bad deployment is one local friend. And so that’s what we’re trying to do for spouses all over the country — bring people together so you make that one friend.
Q: How does a spouse summit complement information that can be found online?
A: One of the things that many organizations are failing to notice is that, now that every military spouse seems to be equipped with a smart phone, the need for information has plummeted. It used to be that you’d have a conference like this, and you would have experts give a class, essentially, on information people needed. No one needs that information anymore because it’s right at the end of their palm. Now we’re looking for experts to provide insight and context, and especially discernment. There are 47,000 organizations – nonprofits registered with the IRS – that include "military" in their mission statements. How can any of us sort through 47,000 organizations? So what people look for from those experts are recommendations. Which one of these is worth doing? Which one of these matter? Which one of these is not a waste of my time?
That’s really what they’re looking for today. That’s why you need to come into these kind of conferences. You’ve got to respect your audience, and that’s what I think we’re missing today because nobody wants a PowerPoint and nobody wants a panel. They want insights.
Q: What are some concerns that military families have in making the transition to civilian life?
A: One of the problems with transition that we don’t address very often is that it’s so uncertain. It isn’t black and white where you get a letter that says, "In one year, you’ll leave." It’s all maybe. Will you make rank? Maybe yes, maybe no. Will you move to the next duty station? Will you retire this year? It totally depends on the economy. And when you’re a military spouse trying to plan for a transition, how can you plan for something if you don’t know when it’s going to begin?
One of the things we know about transition is, go where the job is. So often military families think, "We should just stay where the house is, or we should stay where the kids are." But economically, the smartest thing that you can do is go where the job is. Once you have an income, everything else really does sort itself out. As military families, we should not get hooked up to the idea that we have already done enough, or we have given enough, or our kids have given enough. Instead, we look to how we make the best start and where we make the best start. I think that is always where the job is.
Q: How can military spouses seeking jobs improve their chances of getting hired?
A: We know that being in the military really does affect spouses significantly, especially as you get older. By the time you’re a senior spouse, three-quarters of those spouses report that the military has adversely affected their career. What it turns out to be is the accumulated moves. The first move isn’t so bad, the second move isn’t so bad. It’s when you’ve moved four and five times.
One of the most exciting parts of the summit was the career makeovers that we did — the audience came up with strategies to get over some of those problems that a military life presents to you during a PCS (permanent change of duty station). Mainly, that you don’t have a network, you don’t know anybody. How people get jobs is through the third and fourth connection. Your uncle isn’t going to get you a job, but your uncle’s boss’s friend has a job in his organization.
The spouses had ways to get around that. For example, they recommended being part of a professional temping organization. You get put in the job, they see how you work. Spouses reported they got plenty of job offers that way. Another thing I really liked was strategic volunteering, where you volunteer with an organization that you want to work with, but you don’t give them every hour of every day for free. You show them who you are, and then when an opportunity comes up, they think of you because they know you; they’ve seen you enough. You’re way ahead of other people.
They talked a lot about succession planning in the job you already have. Sometimes (employers) are looking for other people: who’s going to be this manager, who’s going to take that different field? And you start positioning yourself for those things. I was really impressed with how creative they were and how persistent they were.
Q: What is your personal experience in being a military spouse?
A: I am an Air Force brat. I am a Navy wife of 25 years, and my son just joined the Army. So I have a lot of different views of leaving the military. And the view that I’m always going for is that I’d like to follow in my parents’ footsteps, where my mom and dad were ready for transition when it happened. So when my dad’s first job didn’t work out, my mom told him, "Please quit, because between your retirement and my income, we can make it." That way, my dad was able to quit a job he hated, wait a while, (and) then go back to the work-force where he was really happy.
My husband is still in the military and, for me, as long as he has cards to play at the table, I want him to stay in. How long that will be, I have no idea. My fears about that are, first – and I think this is true for so many spouses – our first fears are for our servicemembers. They are very content in their careers. We want them to have the same level of happiness in their next career. My second concern is, of course, money. The same as anybody else. That transition period, if you’re looking at six to nine months to get a job, how can you pay for that? Where’s that money going to come from? When you have a retirement income, you can probably hit that mortgage payment. But for these younger spouses, they do not have a cushion and that’s a worry.