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Gathering Place
Patty Somlo

Sunday, August 14, 2005





Few know the sacrifices
of military families

The mounting death toll of service personnel in Iraq has brought the war and its impact on military families home to many Americans. Seeing the suffering of families on TV -- at funerals for their mostly young husbands and wives -- we all grieve.

Yet how many Americans know about the daily sacrifices military men and women make, even when they're not called on to fight a war?

As the daughter of a career Air Force officer who commanded a medical air evacuation squadron in Vietnam, I know the toll military life takes on its families. Like most other military personnel and their spouses and children, my family moved on the average of once every two years and in some cases every year.

As if the moves weren't hard enough, there were times when my father was stationed at a base where we were not allowed to join him for a year or more. At those times, we were suddenly transformed into a single-parent family, a commonplace event for service personnel, especially during a war.

The psychological burdens placed on military families by continually having to pack up and move, saying goodbye to friends, pastors, doctors and neighbors, and then immediately having to start all over in a new place, are huge.

Added to the emotional devastation caused by the moves are the absences of the military parent and the difficult transitions when he comes back home. A husband expects to take charge in a family where his wife has been responsible for everything while he was gone.

My own parents eventually divorced. As the war in Iraq drags on, more and more military couples are opting to do the same. But even for those couples that manage to stay together, the months apart can take a terrible toll. My own mother slowly slipped into a deep depression, unable to cope with being left alone to take care of herself and her children.

As if the emotional hardships aren't enough, military families must make financial and lifestyle sacrifices as well. Even with recent attempts to construct new units of base housing, many military families still live in substandard apartments in which ceilings and windows leak, the units are too small, and they're downright ugly.

As an officer, my father was entitled to better housing than lower-ranking enlisted personnel. Yet the largest and nicest place our five-member family ever lived was a tiny three-bedroom, one-bath duplex. Most of the time we made do in small, gloomy apartments, furnished with drab gray and khaki military-issue beds and chairs.

Though military housing is often poor, families prefer to live on base because the cost of housing in surrounding communities is frequently prohibitive, given the low level of most military salaries. Yet a shortage of base housing exists, causing some families to stretch their meager resources simply to meet the rent.

It is true that military families receive benefits sometimes not available in comparable civilian jobs, such as being able to buy reduced-cost food at the commissary and receiving free health care at the base dispensary. And when military personnel receive plum assignments in places such as Hawaii or Europe, the opportunities of military life can seem for a time to outweigh the costs.

But in the end, we must not keep asking our military families to make such great sacrifices. When we ponder the decision to go to war, and if we ultimately decide that a war's objectives are worth the cost, then we should find a way to lessen the great sacrifices our service personnel and their families are being called upon to make.


Patty Somlo is a Portland Ore., writer who has just completed a memoir about growing up in a military family. As a child she lived in Hawaii when her father was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base. Her articles have been published in the Baltimore Sun, the San Francisco Examiner, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Oregonian of Portland, Ore.



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