By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor
The saying goes, “if the Army wanted you to have a spouse they would have issued you one.” I highly doubt whoever first spoke these words ever considered that a Soldier’s spouse would have a full time career let alone be a Soldier themselves. Despite the challenges, my active duty Army Officer wife and I have juggled both our careers and family over the last 16 years. People look at our time served, and assume it’s a forgone conclusion that we will stay in the Army until we are eligible for retirement in four years, but with both of us on active duty there are no guarantees.
Being parents and active duty Army Officers we cannot turn down assignments or deployments even if it means we would both be away from home at the same time. Although the Army requires us to have short and long term caregivers for our children, it is generally only realistic to enact the family care plan for deployments and extended overnight training events. The real challenges for us are the more routine issues like deciding who has to drop kids off to daycare, attend school events, or make dinner at home. These daily dilemmas are further complicated when we are on completely different training or deployment schedules, which means one person has to do all the parenting and household duties by him or herself.
While the Married Army Couples Program (MACP) assigns Soldiers married to another Soldier to the same location most of the time, any other consideration requires the MACP couple to ask their chain of command for accommodations not provided to other Soldiers. It goes without saying that not all commanders will afford Soldiers married to another Soldier these allowances, but we have given ourselves the best chance to stay on active duty together by:
- Fighting to get assigned to the same brigade as junior officers (lieutenant and captain)
- Deciding which career to prioritize at different times
- Selecting assignments with stability and less frequent deployments
Fighting to Get Assigned to the Same Brigade as Junior Officers (LT and CPT)
My wife and I have the benefit of being the same year group cohort, which means we commissioned at the same time. We also have complementary branches, I am an infantry officer and she is an adjutant general (AG), personnel officer. Every infantry brigade where I can be assigned has slots for AG officers as well, so theoretically we can serve in the same brigade. The only time we were assigned to different locations was early in our career as lieutenants and captains when we attended our branch specific training: Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC) and Captain’s Career Course (CCC).
As lieutenants my wife and I did one deployment in separate units, but desired to get on the same deployment cycle. If we stayed in different brigades we would have opposite timelines with one of us deployed while the other was home. To move units I needed approval from my entire chain of command up to the Brigade Commander. Although I was just one of the 30 or so lieutenants in my battalion it still meant they would be without a platoon leader, company executive officer, or staff officer if they released me.
My company commander discouraged me from leaving the unit because I wouldn’t have an opportunity to be a specialty platoon leader or company executive officer in the battalion, and I would miss Expert Infantryman Badge testing. However, for me and my marriage it was the best decision, and I am fortunate my chain of command agreed to the release even if it wasn’t in the best interest of the unit.
Deciding Which Career to Prioritize at Different Times
Too often Army leaders disregard subordinates’ obligations outside of work because being a Soldier is a 24/7 profession. The classic belief is that, spouses manage the, “home front,” so their Soldier can prepare for war. However this doesn’t work in my case as my wife also has a commander that places demands on her time.
Although we both have key developmental (KD) assignments for our respective career fields we prioritized my years as an infantry rifle company commander and battalion executive officer (XO) over her assignments. Then when we were in broadening jobs I took over more of the household duties. Whoever wasn’t prioritized at the time had the responsibility to leave work and pickup the kids if the other had to work long hours, or inevitably if one of the children got sick the supporting spouse would have to work from home. Unfortunately my wife’s career took a backseat to mine more often. This clearly wasn’t equitable, but we did not see a way for us to both give 100% without dropping responsibilities at home.
Some of our leaders asked the right questions to know when one of us was supporting the other’s professional goals. When my wife was a Captain her battalion commander was supportive and knew when she had to take on the majority of the parenting duties for our daughter.
He once stopped a routine briefing that was about to go over the allotted time and told her to leave. Since I was out of town on a official travel there was no one else to pickup our daughter, and she had to depart before daycare closed. Because he knew of our arrangement she wasn’t placed in the uncomfortable spot to have to get up and leave the meeting awkwardly when it inevitably ran long.
Of course this action could be seen as special treatment for my wife because she was an officer married to another officer, but I would argue that this same accommodation should be extended to all types of familial arrangements including single parents or dual career couples. For leaders it comes down to knowing your subordinates and what they need at a particular time.
Selecting Assignments with Stability and Less Frequent Deployments
Minimizing assignments with frequent travel is another consideration for Army Officers married to another Army Officer. As majors we strongly weighed the operational tempo of potential units for our key developmental assignments.
We did not interview with more rapidly deployable units that are frequently called upon for short notice missions. Our long term caregivers could only be used sparingly during a single assignment, so we opted for units with more predictable schedules. This is a potential career risk since serving in, “high speed,” units could provide current real world experience, which would benefit our potential for promotion and command opportunities.
Additionally, not all of our peers view the accommodations the Army makes for Army Officers married to another Army Officer as equitable. Within the Army Talent Alignment Process (ATAP) one of the considerations that could break an officer’s match to an assignment is the needs of a MACP couple. Essentially an Army Officer that isn’t married to another Army Officer can have their assignment revoked if that position will fulfill the need for two married Army Officers to be stationed together.
Some see it as a way to game the system if a less talented officer in a MACP couple gets a preferred assignment to be stationed with their spouse. In our case we never expected the Army to assign us to the location that made the most sense for our personal situation, so we did everything in our power to individually obtain assignments to our duty station of choice. We were both hired by the same unit, so we wouldn’t have to leave it to chance or break someone else’s match.
My wife and I have been extremely fortunate to have leaders that supported us while we both serve as Officers in the Army. Of course some have been less than accommodating citing their traditional family views. There were even times when I was told in no uncertain terms to never ask for allowances just because my wife was also in the Army. Every couple enrolled in MACP has to understand their environment and weigh the risk to their career by even hinting that they are not fully committed to their own organization when considering their spouse’s obligations.
While some leaders are more indifferent they may simply feel that its not worth making concessions for the small portion of the active duty population that is married to another service member. However, since the number of dual income families in the military is rising, as it is across society, the Army will likely face more situations requiring leaders to make allowances if they want to retain quality junior leaders including those married to other officers.
Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.
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