WASHINGTON (CNN) — Meghan Wieten-Scott, an Army spouse of 14 years, recounted her family’s posting to Anchorage, Alaska, as one of the best times in her life.
Like 70% of military families, they lived off base in a civilian community.
She remembered a neighbor offering to watch her son, then a baby, to give her a short reprieve.
“Pass Matthew over,” she recalled her saying. “Go take a shower.”
“It’s amazing what a 15 minute break will do for you,” Wieten-Scott said.
In Anchorage, Wieten-Scott and her husband found connections with a young adult group at a local church as well as with her civilian neighbors.
“They were amazing,” she recalled.
There were dinner invitations and running partners. One neighbor even plowed the snow from her driveway.
But now she and her family are assigned to a base in New Jersey where they have had a very different experience.
“It has been hellacious. I finally have one friend 18 months later who I can call and ask to pick up my child at school,” she says.
More than a third of military families who participated in Blue Star Families’ tenth annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey said they have no one to ask for a favor. The poll — the largest and most comprehensive of its kind — found that isolation from family and friends has grown as a key stressor, ranked even higher by military families than deployments.
The survey provides a yearly snapshot of the challenges and experiences military families encounter in order to inform local communities, national policymakers and philanthropies. It also aims to minimize the civilian-military divide.
Last year, over 11,000 respondents told Blue Star Families their top stressors were financial issues and relocation stress. As in past surveys, respondents listed their major concerns as time away from family, military spouse employment, education for their children and lack of control over their military career. But the increasing struggle with isolation stood out.
Even as advocates view military family isolation as a drag on military readiness and national security, solutions to this problem are evident.
Employment provides a social connection to military spouses as much as a much needed second income.
But as the nation enjoys a 3.6% unemployment rate, 24% of military spouses are unemployed and as many as 32% may be underemployed, according to the most recent statistics from the Defense Department’s Office of People Analytics.
Leticia Limbo works at a Starbucks near her husband’s current duty station close to San Diego, after transferring from another location of the coffee giant at his last posting, Port Hueneme, farther up the California coast.
She wears an apron that says “Navy Spouse” on it.
“I wear that apron with so much pride because it’s a conversation starter,” she says. Civilians would go out of their way to talk to her, she says, and it’s an open invitation for other military spouses to make a connection with her.
Brittney Allen, an Army spouse of 13 years who left the military herself in 2007 to pursue social work, has experienced gaps in her employment, encountering agencies that don’t want to hire a military spouse who could be on the move in a couple years.
“I love to work. I truly love to work. I like to have my work friends and a sense of purpose,” she said, insisting that employers should see opportunity in hiring military spouses.
“We are able to adapt and overcome in any situation. We are resilient. We have a lot to offer.”
The disconnect between communities, employers and military families also extends to the civilian schools that most military children attend.
The vast majority of Americans have no connection to a member of the nation’s all-volunteer force and, as a result, lack basic knowledge about the unique experiences of their families.
Half of the families surveyed in the 2019 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey said their local civilian community has limited awareness, understanding and support for military and veteran families.
For Wieten-Scott, a lack of cultural sensitivity to military families contributed to a very difficult kindergarten year for her son, Matthew.
He began acting out in class and experiencing intense bouts of anxiety at his civilian school in New Jersey. The classroom staff, Wieten-Scott said, exacerbated the problem.
“We knew that Matthew was struggling,” she said. “We did everything we could to sign him up for success and it was roadblock after roadblock.”
She pointed to the lack of control military families have over their schedules and the occasional need to prioritize precious family time over school calendars. “Sometimes military kids are going to miss school for reasons other kids don’t miss,” she told CNN. “Dad just came home from deployment — you bet my kid is taking several days off. It’s mid-tour leave, you bet we’re taking a vacation.”
“For schools it is very important to involve military parents and military leadership in building the school. They need to invite parents in who can talk about what to expect.”
Wieten-Scott briefly considered shelving her career to homeschool Matthew, but eventually found a new pediatrician, a social worker and a new teacher, all of whom have helped make Matthew’s first grade year a success.
The nonprofit Blue Star Families is working to enlist civilian members of the community into stemming military family isolation, soon piloting a “deployment circle” program to build a network of support for spouses of deployed service members. A spouse signs up, identifying people they would like to be in their support circle during deployments. Blue Star Families emails and texts the members of the group with tips and suggestions on how to support the family.
But bridging the divide between civilian and military families still requires a good old-fashioned introduction.
For Army spouse Brittney Allen, a simple “good morning” from a stranger turned into a lifeline.
In 2015 her family had just relocated from Oklahoma to Georgia. She had an eight-year-old daughter and a five-month-old son in tow, her husband had deployed to South Korea for a year.
Allen felt completely alone.
Every morning, the same woman yelled a greeting at Allen in the school carpool line. Eventually Allen introduced herself and discovered her new friend was also a military spouse. They have been good friends for five years now.
“Because of her kindness in extending that ‘good morning’ to me, it was really something I looked forward to every morning. It provided me with a person,” Allen said.
That person could just as easily be a civilian.
That person could be you.