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Rethinking the Army’s ‘Wife School’: Maybe time to move it out of the 1950s

Rethinking the Army’s ‘Wife School’: Maybe time to move it out of the 1950s

 

Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on December 8, 2016.

By Frances Tilney Burke
Best Defense guest columnist

Before my husband took battalion command, the spouses of all the battalion commanders in the soon-to-be brigade team were encouraged to attend a week of the Pre-Command Course (PCC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This was commonly known as “Wife School.”

It may be a bit unfair to call the PCC week for spouses “Wife School,” because examples do exist of women taking tactical command while their husbands take on the support role. But, by and large, most incoming Army commanders at the battalion and brigade level are men — and the expectation is for wives to fill the role of the Family Readiness Group (FRG) Advisor, hostess, command team cheerleader, and social worker during the command years.

My husband will take command of a tactical brigade next summer. And, again, he will attend a series of PCCs to prepare for his role. There is also an opportunity for me to attend Wife School-Part Two. My three children and my own academic schedule do not allow me to attend this iteration of PCC, but the invitation alone brought up some nagging questions:

— Should I encourage the incoming battalion command spouses to attend Wife School?

— Am I setting a bad example by not attending?

— And, most significant, does Wife School still have utility for spouses, and for the Army, or is it an antiquated concept ready for the dustbin?

When I attended PCC in 2012, we were met with a smorgasbord of briefings, meetings, and icebreakers. We took personality tests to see how if we were extroverts or introverts, work well in groups, or alone. Was I a natural leader? Well, whether you are or not, I was told, you are going to be leading the volunteer core of the battalion that supports your husband’s soldiers. You are going to be looked up to, called upon for assistance, and asked for advice.

I was reminded of how a formal receiving line works, and asked to consider whether I should have a coffee klatch biweekly or monthly, and whether I should include only officers’ wives, or enlisted wives. We sat with a lovely group of senior leaders’ wives who led a discussion on what kinds of gifts to give incoming and outgoing company commanders and first sergeants, and how to budget, within your family’s income, for these personalized cheese boards, lanterns, plaques, and picture frames.

We also learned about suicide prevention and training, and the Army’s pilot program for teaching the skills of resiliency, which is now more formalized for both soldiers and spouses. An Army public affairs officer came in and gave us a primer on how to speak to the press: “Never, never speak on behalf of the Army!”

There was some value in the trainings, though I believe most of it can be taught at the home installation, or through informal networks of wives, passing along information to each other through brigades, battalions, and companies, where the “culture” of an aviation unit may be very different than the “culture” of an infantry unit — nuances that are lost in the PCC training.

I will say that the best part of Wife School was making some dear female friends who were about to make the same “command team” journey — a difficult, exhausting, and political two years — who experienced leading an FRG during a deployment at the same time as I did. I cherish those relationships, but my gut tells me that I would have made them without the Army’s tacit mandate for us to accompany our husbands to PCC.

What made my hackles rise throughout the PCC classes, however, is that the Army and its representatives never once acknowledged that the wives at the course might make other choices during the period of their husband’s command. First, there was no recognition that working wives would have to take five vacation days to attend the PCC. Second, there was no discussion as to how working wives would balance their heavy command duties with a job outside the Army. The tacit understanding was that most wives’ full-time jobs would be their volunteer responsibilities.

This is not a realistic postmillennial expectation.

The missing element during Wife School was choice. The Army message was that a wife’s kismet was her command team duties. What I desire to see for the future is a recognition from the Army that not all wives’ paths are subordinate to the needs of the Army. While the Army progresses in other ways, such as rescinding DADT, their stance with regards to wives’ duties remains entrenched in the 1950s.

Frances Tilney Burke is a former special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense. She is currently pursuing graduate work in international security studies and the history of U.S. foreign relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons