Thanks of a Grateful Nation? Military Families Say Not So Much!

CommissaryThe military social media community is abuzz discussing articles written by columnists for the Washington Post, suggesting that somehow members of the military are free-loading off American taxpayers — a disturbing trend in recent articles about the military community.

One of these articles explores the benefits that supplement the low pay of most service members, concentrating on the commissary (the grocery store) that is on most military installations, and that make a huge difference to many military families’ standard of living.

In the article entitled, “Plan to shut military supermarkets shows difficulty of cutting defense spending,” the writer suggests that the presence of commissaries that stock anything other than basic pantry staples or surplus food is somehow an over-the-top elite luxury, or some such nonsense.

” …in the 1970s, commissaries sold basic staples on steel racks, much of it leftovers from the mess halls. Extra bags of pork chops. Loaves of sliced white bread. “Subsistence food.”  …

“The commissary at Lejeune now rivals the nicest American supermarkets. There’s filet mignon in the meat rack, wedges of Camembert in the cheese section and fresh baguettes in the bakery. Gone is the surplus feel. Every item is stocked in almost every flavor and size. There are two dozen varieties of Ocean Spray cranberry juice and 15 types of ketchup.”

“Check on all that ketchup!” is the new catchphrase being bandied about with a wry twist of our figurative lips in some military family circles to reflect the frustration over how we’ve been portrayed in these Washington Post articles, especially with the offended reporter’s comments about “15 types of ketchup” at one commissary in Virginia.  (A friend of mine went to that same commissary as the reporter.  The condiment aisle had three brands of ketchup, with three different sizes. I may be a mathematical moron; but that’s not 15).

Yet another Washington Post article entitled “Booming military benefits,” compared military and civilian pay/benefits, including retirement. While the chart purports to be a compare/contrast exercise, it left many military spouses with the impression that service members are being criticized for somehow taking unfair advantage of taxpayers.

This “booming benefits” article has some military families us scratching their heads and wondering which LES (Leave and Earnings Statement) the author was looking at. Some see these articles as the latest and most visible evidence of the new feeling the country has about us — the general consensus is that we are on the down slope of the up and down relationship the military has always had with the civilian population.

In a time of shrinking budgets, sequestration and recession, it feels like the American public has turned on the very group it has been celebrating with parades and flags; praising with effusive speeches and sticky sentimentality; for whom they have placed flags and bumper stickers on their precious vehicles.

The Washington Post’s “facts” about military pay and training have been countered beautifully in the article written for SpouseBuzz, the Military.com blog. As author Amy Bushatz says, the numbers don’t exactly add up – especially the pay figures. Amy also points out some facts have been left out — that to join the military you have to have certain physical attributes. You can’t just walk in, sign up and walk in step! Her question of, “ If it is so good, and so easy, why aren’t YOU joining up,” is a great one, and one that some of us have used when responding to allegations of over pay and enlistees unable to make it on the outside. The response is usually a mumble and change of subject.

Facts about military pay and benefits are being massaged and trumpeted in articles that are popping up in various media outlets can be refuted; but what most of us are confused or angry about is the tone, the snark, and the thinly-veiled anger at our community. Many of us have been uncomfortable about the overly positive and effusive (some say nauseating) essays and speeches made about our community; the mythical attributes ascribed to us, the saccharine simplification of our lives as shown in Hallmark Channel movies. This about-face, this veiled anger at us – the “you are a drain on the taxpayers” attitude – is all the more hurtful when you look around our community. Coming right after Memorial Day when we remembered those who died in the service of their country, the slap in the face from these articles really resonated.

As an older member of a military family, I have seen the civilian world either put us up on pedestals and fling ticker tape on us, or spit on our uniforms and call us baby killers and jackbooted thugs. The current climate of nickel and dime-ing our benefits, chipping away at the compensation promised to each service member when her or she swore an oath to protect and defend this country is nothing new. BUT, coming after over a decade of wars, it is hard to swallow. The very real sacrifices our service members and our families have endured over the past decade, the families that didn’t go to the mall like the other 99% of the civilian population, are being disregarded by the public that once declared “nothing is too good for you.” The families who have gone to memorial services for the fallen time after time, who have survived deployment communications blackouts and waited for the knock on the door, who live at hospital bedsides, or who wonder who this stranger is who has come home, aren’t going to have their lives made better by getting a discount at a store, or having a commissary or post exchange.

The truth – that prices are usually better at a local discount store unless you live overseas where prices are staggering and most military families wouldn’t be able to survive on their pay – is not the important fact here. Most commenters on these stories I have seen have said, “If it’s a choice between bullets and the PX, take the damned PX away.” The attitude of the public that we are a bunch of spoiled, lazy good-for-nothings is a lot harder to take.

So we are waiting – waiting to hear the next attack on military families. Will it be in print again with another ridiculous set of “facts and figures” by a newspaper reporter? Are these articles being written as a response to the prevalent feeling by the civilian community, or are these reporters and commentators trying to guide and influence the attitudes of the civilians? Is this another “us vs. them” simplification of facts, and an easy way for the media to help their audience understand hard facts? Will it be another radio announcer talking about the terrifying aspect of hiring a veteran who just might snap and take out his entire job site because of post-traumatic stress? Will it be another cut to retirement and health care benefits coming out of a Congressional committee? Or will we listen to another relative speak dismissively of our service member or our community’s service? I don’t know. But I’m not looking forward to it, this level of anger and hurt isn’t good for my blood pressure.

What I do know is that it’s time to be honest about how military families live and not use our realities as a way to justify stories about where more budget cuts should come from. This isn’t about ketchup — it’s about telling the real story.

Karen Francis is a writer and military spouse in the Washington, D.C. area and is the Military Families Editor for The Broad Side. Karen is the principal of KFVA Virtual Assisting, a company that provides freelance writing and editing services.

 Image via Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

  • My family is not a military one. My grandpa served in the Korean War driving tanks, but that was that. I can’t imagine living the life of a military spouse, never knowing if you’re going to see your husband again. I’m not strong enough for that.

    Bless you and all of the other military families who sacrifice so much so your loved ones can serve our country.

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