Political News

It's time to bridge the military-civilian divide in the US

Posted February 6, 2019 9:00 a.m. EST
Updated February 6, 2019 2:59 p.m. EST

— "If you hear explosions, don't worry, it's outgoing," my husband tells me as we're FaceTiming.

"That's comforting," I say wryly. He's on his seventh combat deployment -- this is only my second as a military spouse -- and his idea of what I might find reassuring is curious.

We move on to other topics.

"How's Antonio sleeping?"

I roll my eyes and he laughs. Our son is such a happy baby -- and an enthusiastic midnight snacker, 2 a.m. snacker and 4:30 a.m. snacker.

I've recently launched a new show on CNN. Each day I do my best to push through the exhaustion familiar to any parent of a baby to report the news with the precision it demands, repeating my mantra to myself: he will sleep through the night at some point.

My dad served in the Australian Navy until I was a toddler. I recall my mom talking about the challenge of living in a strange place with two small children while her husband was away. At the time I didn't have kids and I couldn't fully appreciate what she meant.

Military families are increasingly living away from military bases, embedded in civilian neighborhoods. It gives military families and civilians the opportunity for greater exposure to one another, yet many feel lonely and isolated.

Keilar: With my husband deployed, covering the news hits home

48 percent of military family respondents to the annual Military Lifestyle Survey conducted by Blue Star Families released Wednesday said they did not feel a sense of belonging in their local civilian community.

A large majority of respondents said they had lived in their current town or city for two years or less. That's not much time to develop bonds, unless there's an active effort to do so.

I've spent most of my life like most Americans -- without any immediate connection to active duty military.

Military-civilian divide wider than ever

Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans have served in the military at some point in their lives, according to the Pew Research Center, and most veterans are from older generations. Only 0.4% of Americans are currently in the US military and they tend to be concentrated within multiple generations of individual families.

The military-civilian divide is wider than it's ever been and people who are under 40 are much less likely than older Americans to know someone in the armed services or their families.

We may not know each other but we are all connected. Taxpayers fund the military. Voters choose the elected officials who make decisions that determine the course of the lives of service members and, in turn, their loved ones.

Military families are frequently referred to as the backbone of this service, but in a nation that has been at war since just after 9/11 in Afghanistan, and has also sent thousands of troops to conflicts in Iraq and Syria as well as on deployments in Europe, Africa and Asia, their stories are often absent from the mainstream media.

Less than 1 in 5 military family respondents to the Blue Star Families annual survey said the general public is aware of the significant pressures military service places on families.

In my relatively brief experience as a military spouse, sharing some of my own experiences, I believe the civilian population is more curious and empathetic than that number reveals.

That's why I'm starting this weekly column, Home Front. My hope is to create a forum where the stories of military families will reach a large audience and reveal the common ground between the people on either side of the military-civilian divide.

While military and non-military families have some distinct experiences that don't overlap, most of us are dealing with the same stuff whether our family members are in the service or not.

In my case, diapers. So. Many. Diapers.

When my husband was home I would, probably too often, complain he wasn't doing his fair share of the household chores. But now I have become aware that he was doing much more than I gave him credit for. As any parent knows, sharing diaper duty sure beats changing them all yourself.

These are the things I think about when I'm the only grown up in the house, juggling bedtime routines for the baby and my toddler stepson. I picture myself in my own army, one I have found great support in: parents with small children. I don't know what I would do without these connections that make even the mundane and, let's be honest, occasionally gross parts of parenting and deployment life bearable and humorous.

"If you hear explosions, don't worry, they're only outgoing," I say to myself as I change my son. I'll have to use that on my husband next time we talk.

I want to hear your feedback and use this column to share your stories and experiences. Email me at homefront@cnn.com.