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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Michelle Obama and military spouses: Here’s why we’re frustrated and angry

When I ran an item last week that was critical of Michelle Obama, it provoked the most responses of anything I’ve ever posted on this blog. Some of the responses made it clear to me that many people don’t understand what the big deal is. So I asked one Army wife (her husband used to ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When I ran an item last week that was critical of Michelle Obama, it provoked the most responses of anything I’ve ever posted on this blog. Some of the responses made it clear to me that many people don’t understand what the big deal is. So I asked one Army wife (her husband used to be an Apache pilot in the 82nd Airborne, and is now a major in the medical branch) to explain. Here is her response:  

By Rebecca Noah Poynter
Best Defense
guest columnist

I’m a military wife. We don’t mind that America doesn’t know the 685,000 of us. We learned during that first deployment years ago that there are times in the middle of the night when there is no one to talk to assuage the loneliness, the frustration and the chilling worry that in fact nobody might really care.

But we really thought Michelle Obama did — because she told us so. She visited our bases during the campaign. Then, in May, she said in an Army press release that, "I promise you that I will use every ounce of my energy to make sure that America always takes care of you." Then she suggested Americans should take us to lunch for Military Spouse Appreciation Day.

But she wasn’t there for us when the going got serious. In November, new legislation gave spouses a home state, something service members have had since WWII. The new law offers us civil protections for income, voting, property tax. Some 14,000 spouses celebrated our first political victory on Facebook. Not included was Michelle Obama because the First Lady’s office indicated no real interest. The bill was signed into law on Veteran’s Day with only the virtual Facebook party for spouses across the country, the day after the shootings at Fort Hood.

In December the Defense Department said the new law, the Military Spouses Residency Relief Act, was "confusing," even though it simply supports the same rights offered to the military by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

Where was Michelle? On the same day of that announcement about the MSRRA, a Defense Department press release told us that the "First Lady Delivers Toys For Tots."

Which do you think matters more to us? "The markers and board games" collected from her staff (the largest of any First Lady’s, yet without anyone dedicated full-time to her declared issue of military families), or acknowledging the MSRRA, which Army Times called "landmark legislation" for equal and civil rights for military spouses. The Pentagon and the First Lady had both missed their first opportunity of the new administration to genuinely support us.

In January there was another scripted moment at the Armed Forces Officers’ Wives Club annual luncheon. With a smile and two thumbs up, Mrs. Obama announced that there would be "$84 million for spousal career development including tuition assistance." Just weeks later that tuition program, the Career Advancement Account (also known as "MyCAA") was shut down, without notice to spouses.

Mrs. Obama’s office said nothing about that. Military wives were less shy. The "Take Action Against MyCAA Shutdown" site was established on Facebook within hours.

  • Breanne wrote, "My next class starts in 4 weeks… as if working fulltime, school full time and a husband who is deploying soon isn’t stressful enough."
  • Deborah added, "I quit my job to accompany my husband to his new duty station and I have not started working, I applied but keep hearing ‘don’t want to hire another spouse.’ I was depending on MyCAA."
  • Jacey Eckhart cited MyCAA as proof that "a new generation of military spouses has arrived. We aren’t dependents anymore. We are reliable partners in the business of military life." 

The math tells us that there were only enough funds allocated to cover 15,000 to 30,000 spouses, but that 132,000 spouses had signed up. It seems that Pentagon officials didn’t do the math before offering the program. Worst of all, they didn’t even tell us when they stopped it. It may seem strange, but we heard from spouses via Facebook who had found their on-line accounts inaccessible.

Surprised spouses began posting on Defense Department sites. "Shame on DoD!" admonished Paulette.

Then this message popped up on the Pentagon’s MyCAA website: "Please be advised that the My Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) program has been suspended." The insult to military spouses could have been avoided if DOD had run the numbers or even had an idea of how many spouses need to build portable careers to survive as reliable partners in this American military life. This should have been done before implementing the program. And the First Lady would have been saved some embarrassment if someone in the administration had done the same before she was sent out to announce its availability to military spouses.

We responded by going to Congress, by writing to Defense Secretary Gates, by giving interviews to newspapers and television stations. To my knowledge, spouses who contacted the First Lady’s office did not receive a reply.

The official who had overseen the program, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Tommy T. Thomas, a political appointee of the administration, apologized and resigned. The MyCAA was partially reinstated, with the currently enrolled getting the promised benefit, but no new registration permitted.

It is time for the First Lady to get to know the stories of the American military spouse. She can start by reading our Facebook page (MyCAA Shutdown). Then, Mrs. Obama, let’s really do lunch, behind closed doors, with no media present, and we will tell you about MyCAA and the positive career opportunity it has given us and our hope that it will again be available for all military spouses who want and need it.

Rebecca Noah Poynter is an Army wife and writer. She has published in the Washington Post and the Military Times newspapers. She led military spouse support of the MSRRA. She is co-founder of the Military Spouse Business Association.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1