By Natalie Ryan
Employee retention is a conversation taking place around every boardroom table in the United States. But the boardroom in the Pentagon may be the only one holding discussions about the satisfaction and retention of their employees’ spouses. This is because for almost four decades now, the Department of Defense (DOD) has recognized an empirical link between spousal support and service member retention.
Still, little progress has been made. The latest biennial survey of active-duty Army spouses, conducted by the DOD Office of Military Community and Family Policy, recorded the lowest percentage of spouses supporting their service member spouse to stay on active duty. No one denies this is a wicked problem: how can an organization identify and meet the requirements of a stakeholder population that has no formal obligation to engage with the system the organizational leaders are trying to improve?
I recently attended the Command Team Spouse Development Course at Ft. Leavenworth. I confidently endorse this venue as a means to identify ways to increase spouse satisfaction with the military way of life. It increases spouse support for their servicemember to remain in the military. I suggest augmenting the existing spouse courses offered through U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Professional Military Education (PME) courses in two ways. First, incorporate a formal focus group session into the existing spouse development programs aimed at identifying gaps and opportunities within the Army system. Then, add a paid ten month spouse fellowship opportunity at the longer resident PME courses. Chosen fellows would be tasked to develop a plan to close one of the identified gaps or to capitalize on a critical opportunity. This way, spouses can be incorporated into the Army’s problem-solving apparatus, and advocate for needed change, up to the Secretary of the Army level.
Know Your Audience
Honestly, I am surprised by my own recommendation. My previous experience with “Army spouse training” was unproductive, condescending, and ultimately so discouraging that I almost did not attend this summer’s course. That was in the summer of 2018, when I sat in Eisenhower Auditorium at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for the Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC) Spouse Orientation Brief. The session began unremarkably, with General Officers and garrison staff welcoming the cohort and pointing to resources that may be helpful during the year.
Then the Student Detachment Team took the stage. They opened with the question: “How many spouses here have their bachelor’s degree?” Nearly every hand shot up. “How many have their master’s or doctorate?” About half the hands came down, but there was still a strong showing. This should not have surprised the briefers at all, Military Spouses are 1.5 times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree and 1.3 times more likely to have a post-graduate degree than the average American.
What the briefer said next I will never forget: “Perfect! Then you know how rigorous these academic programs can be. Over the next year your husbands [sic] will be bringing home challenging assignments. When you see that, be meek, be mild, don’t nag him, maybe get the kids out of the house so he can concentrate on the work.” A lot of feelings washed over me in that moment – I assure you none of them were meek or mild. The prevailing feeling was disappointment; once again high ranking leaders representing the Army had underestimated the value of their civilian spouse population.
Same Place, Fresh Perspective
That lingering disappointment is a large part of why, when my spouse was slated for the August 2023 Pre-Command Course (PCC), I first balked at attending the week of spouse programming. Ultimately, I decided to give it a try. I knew what I was going into: a frivolous week of instructions on how to write thank you cards and which pearls to wear for each event. That’s how I found myself back in Eisenhower Auditorium, sitting next to my service member, and being congratulated on his selection for Command.
The spouses then moved to our small group classrooms and I braced for the worst – if anyone so much as mentioned the words “meek” or “mild” I was out of there. A quick glance at the course materials at my desk and I was surprised and encouraged to see an agenda focused on self development and executive leadership training. The Command Team Spouse Development Program had contracted PZI International, a well-known and respected human capital workshop facilitator to run the workshops. This demonstrated not only an investment in the spouse attendees, but a commitment to provide quality instruction. Where spouse courses I had attended in the past may have felt like a hasty afterthought, this was intentional.
The week prior to the course, the spouse attendees had completed a self-assessment. These tools are a hallmark of most professional development workshops, but based on my past experiences, are an unexpected component of an Army spouse course. The moderators used these self-assessment results not only as a tool for reflection, but more importantly as a tool for collaboration. I know I am an extrovert with a tendency to lead with emotion, but how might those traits fit into a team? How could we adapt to different groups to leverage our influence? The mere acknowledgement that this group could hold any influence felt novel. The Army was providing us a chance for growth and development through a lens that wasn’t tethered to our service member. This new perspective was empowering.
In addition to the excellent workshops, the course included high-level briefings and discussions held by various military commands. Most were informative and empowering. For example, the U.S. Army Installation Management Command (IMCOM) Group and their staff led collaborative discussions on on-post housing reform, quality childcare access, and military spouse employment initiatives—meeting identified threats to retention with effective focus grouping. The IMCOM Commanding General and Command Sergeant Major, Lieutenant General Jones and Command Sergeant Major Copeland, participated actively, taking notes, and assigning actions to their staff as issues were raised and suggestions made. One suggestion recommended expanding the professional licensure reimbursement to include the training required to obtain new state licenses. Another was to work with legislative partners to make military spouses a protected class of laborers. This would make it illegal to discriminate against them based on their spouse’s chosen profession. These leaders approached the conversation with an open mindset and were rewarded with creative solutions they had not considered before.
Other briefings were well-intended, but ultimately failed when they viewed their audience as trainees to push information onto. After a week of high-level collaborative conversations, the spouses expected more than death by powerpoint. Unfortunately, the Surgeon General’s team didn’t get this message. So when they hit the stage on the last day of the course, armed only with a thick slide deck of healthy tips and tricks that should comfortably fill the one hour time slot, they were in for a rough morning.
Did we really need to go over the same slides about washing your hands and sleep hygiene? No. What we really needed was the opportunity to hear from senior leaders within our medical system. After 15 minutes of “what to look for in the commissary” I politely asked the briefers to skip ahead to the content pertaining to our informal roles as Battalion and Brigade level command team spouses, and my peers agreed with me. The guest speakers reluctantly agreed, and opened the floor for questions. What followed was a powerful and emotional discussion about the challenges and frustrations that Army families face when it comes to healthcare. We took the MEDCOM leaders through difficult conversations about the failings of Army facilities for dependents and female service members, particularly when it came to maternal health.
I was most struck by the theme of advocacy that ran throughout the discussion. We spouses all felt a responsibility to speak up and make sure our voices were heard. As the briefing concluded, one spouse summed it up perfectly: “If these are our experiences, as the families of senior Officers and NCOs, how can a junior enlisted or officer family expect to navigate this?”
Advocacy: The Root of all Progress
The fact is, military spouses have been making their voices heard since the Army became an all-volunteer force. The first series of “Army Family Symposia” was held from 1980-82. These forums were organized by grassroots advocacy groups of military spouses with the intent of amplifying issues affecting army families. Issues like employment assistance, health care, volunteer recognition, and improved support of childcare facilities were communicated up to senior leadership as the priorities for Army families. As a result, the 31st Chief of Staff of the Army, General John Wickam, published the first formal analysis of the dependent population in his 1983 White paper The Army Family. Later that year, as a part of GEN Wickam’s directive for a “well-conceived strategic plan for the Army Family”, the Army Family Action Plan (AFAP) was established.
For the past 40 years, the AFAP has served as a mechanism to collect issues and feedback from Army families and track progress made towards their resolution. In that time, over 500 issues have been resolved, resulting in groundbreaking enhancements like soldier paternity leave, the Military Thrift Savings Plan, Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, funding for Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS), and the creation of the TRADOC spouse programs like the one I attended this summer. Despite the resolution of 500+ issues, over half of the spouse population in 2021 indicated they were “dissatisfied with the military way of life.” This metric indicates a break in the feedback loop, and a need for Army leaders to explore fresh approaches for engagement. This article has discussed an existing opportunity for feedback: within the classrooms of the TRADOC spouse programs.
I propose TRADOC harness the potential of our highly educated and knowledgeable civilian military spouse population with a two-prong program. First, introduce a focus group element to the shorter one-week spouse programs. Based on my experience at the Pre-Command Course (PCC), the week-long “business trip” format cultivated the perfect environment for critical thinking and collaboration. Focus group facilitators will record existing issues and possible gaps that spouses have observed in Army programming. By tapping into the experience of spouses attending the professional military education companion curriculum, Army Leadership could gain a snapshot of spouse feedback at multiple echelons.
Second, offer a paid ten-month spouse fellowship opportunity at the longer resident courses like Command and General Staff College and the Sergeant Major Academy. These courses are roughly 10 months in duration and entail a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move. Such duty assignments are often eagerly anticipated because the service member is a student in a non-deployable status which means predictability and much needed family time. The down side of a ten-month posting can be that the short duration makes it extremely difficult for civilian spouses to find employment, essentially putting any professional life on pause. Instead, these spouses can be offered an opportunity to apply for the proposed fellowship opportunities. Once selected, the fellows will be assigned a problem set formulated from the spouse focus group findings. With the guidance of a faculty advisor over the duration of the 10-month course, they will work towards a proposed solution. Ultimately, the Secretary of the Army will be the client. This will help TRADOC to better serve Army Families and ensure that they can retain their highly skilled and valuable personnel.
Let Your Spouses Do the Work
The Army has always had a tenuous relationship with dependents. Even General George Washington wrestled with the link between family satisfaction and retention. Defending an increase in rations spending, GEN Washington wrote: “I was obliged to give Provisions to the extra women in these Regiments or loose [sic] by Desertion—perhaps to the Enemy—some of the oldest and best Soldiers in the Service.” Almost 250 years later our Army is still wrestling with how to utilize the potential in this population. But when initiatives like intentional spouse development programming combine with senior leaders who are willing to put their weight behind necessary changes, we can all make progress. Walking away from my week of training, I have one echoing thought. When it comes to issues affecting Army Families and Army spouses, I would advise the service members to take a step back. Be meek. Be mild. Let your spouses do the work.
Natalie Ryan is an Army spouse and Department of the Army civilian supporting U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Liberty, NC. She is a credentialed Project Management Professional and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the United States Military Academy where she studied in the Department of Systems Engineering.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.