- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Alison Buckholtz
Best Defense guest columnist
Two weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I listed for a civilian friend the reasons why it would be wrong to identify myself as a military spouse against the White House. In the 15 years I’ve been married to my husband, an active-duty senior officer, I’ve had plenty of time to mull over the risks (many) and rewards (none) of military family members sharing their views on politics.
My friend paused a moment, waiting to see if I was serious. Then she reminded me that self-censorship was one of the signs of an authoritarian regime.
So here I am: a military spouse who believes that Trump is threatening American security, diminishing American values, and undermining American institutions. I’m sharing my story although I’m painfully and personally familiar with the belief that military spouses are best seen and not heard. After all, we never took an oath to protect the Constitution as servicemembers do. But we are silent signatories to this pledge as we follow our partner to each new duty station, manage the difficulties of deployments, and raise children who, despite all of this, dream of attending service academies themselves.
It’s precisely because of the ways that the Constitution actively shapes our lives as a military family that Trump’s challenges to the Constitution feel like hostile acts. Even though most military members favored Trump in pre-election polls, recent administration statements like those disputing the legitimacy of judges and judiciary rulings have put some of us on high alert.
I’m equally disturbed by something that might seem mundane in comparison. On January 20, 2017 — Inauguration Day — all references to Joining Forces, an Obama-era initiative that created policies and programs to support military families, were deleted from the new White House web site. There was no sign of a replacement. I remember the moment I discovered that the White House wiped out Joining Forces, because it felt like a slap in the face. To me, it was a declaration that military families no longer matter to those in power.
Joining Forces, championed by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, was a bipartisan organization. It often highlighted the statistic that military servicemembers represent just one percent of the population, but shoulder the responsibility of protecting the entire nation. As a military spouse who lived the cliché that my husband and his colleagues were at war while the rest of America was at the mall, I was grateful that Joining Forces paid attention to the issues military families care about: employment opportunities, veteran homelessness, mental health resources, and financial readiness. Joining Forces made a positive impact in each of these areas.
Servicemembers and their families, along with Republican leaders, supported Joining Forces throughout its six years of action. Former President George Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush have spoken at Joining Forces events with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, expressing their own commitment to its mission. And in an online poll conducted in mid-January by Military.com, 69 percent of respondents said that Joining Forces should continue under the Trump administration.
It’s reasonable to think that any new administration might want to put is own stamp on its outreach activities. But the total disappearance of Joining Forces — and the continuing lack of a replacement — silences military families and leaves them unprotected.
We are not the only military community left out in the cold. There have been been reports circulating that prominent mainstream veterans organizations such as the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, VoteVets, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were not invited to the White House “listening session” on problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was speculation that the White House included only organizations (for example, hospitals) and individuals in favor of privatizing the Veterans Administration. The strength and future of the VA is critical to military families because many service members upon exiting the military healthcare system, will depend on VA resources.
Naturally, White House actions that affect national security — and challenge the Constitution — are of far greater concern to profoundly larger numbers of Americans than programs that help a military mom and her kids manage a wartime deployment. It’s more important to most Americans than whether or not a veteran’s medical needs are met.
But the fates of military families and civilian households are intertwined. So we are watching and waiting, along with the rest of the country, for a signal that the new President is going to approach critical national security decisions with the same understanding of the living Constitution that directs our own lives. At a minimum, this requires deferring to the processes and standards that best curb chaos.
Now, we have the opposite. And such a casual, opportunistic view of the rule of law, paired with the internecine turmoil and court-like pettiness that appears to dominate the highest level of government, strikes fear in the heart of this military spouse. So I’m asking President Trump for no less than he demands of our community: not simply to lead, but to serve.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War.
Photo credit: Alison Buckholtz